Community. A word that means different things for different people.
And, in the capital of Wales, there is a football club working to change the lives of one predominately Arab and Muslim community.
To the south of Cardiff’s center, before the city hits the sea, lies Butetown. Geographically it’s one community, in reality, it’s two: Cardiff Bay and Butetown.
Cardiff Bay has been gentrified, made up of new apartments and manicured gardens, while Butetown has been beaten down, squeezed and neglected. A rail line from the city center physically dissects these two communities.
Before its refurbishment, Cardiff Bay was known as the Docks or Tiger Bay.
A legacy of the docks is the Somali population in the city. Britain’s colonial presence in Somaliland meant Merchant Navy Seamen could work and live in the UK, and there was employment available in the docks, and later in the steel industry.
Many stayed, some had families in Wales, while others brought their families over when civil war broke out in Somalia.
The community is tight-knit, and out of it grew a football team, Cardiff Bay Warriors.
The melting pot of nationalities means Cardiff is home to an eclectic range of eateries, and some very popular Arabic restaurants.
In Hardramowt restaurant, Ahmed Noor, Warriors manager and the glue that holds the team together alongside secretary Ali Abdi, sits down to explain the ethos of the club.
We are also joined by team captain Mohamed Abdulla. He perfectly illustrates the heart of the club by modestly explaining that while he gets offers to play for teams in leagues above the Warriors, he would prefer to play for his community.
Noor stresses the importance of this loyalty.
“Cardiff Bay Warriors emerged from the community,” he said.
“The players live and breathe the community,” the manager added, “from attending primary school, faith classes and sports clubs in the community. The fans are mainly neighbors from the local community and family members.”
The club was first established in 2005, but disbanded after a few years.
Cardiff Bay Warriors returned in 2019, and have played in the Somali British Champions League for the past three years. Two semifinal appearances sit either side of a triumph two years ago.
That win didn’t come easy.
The Warriors won their quarter-final on penalties after a fightback from a 5-3 first-leg deficit, and the final was even more stressful for Noor.
Leicester Atletico were leading 2-1 until a last-minute goal levelled the match to force extra time. The Warriors scored in extra time to take the Champions League.
Last year’s competition witnessed more last-minute heroics when a goal from the captain levelled the match to force extra time. However, this time it was the opponents who found a winner.
The Somali British Champions League has grown in stature in recent times, and last year it had the backing of some famous faces.
“Funnily, Jack Grealish who plays for Manchester City is good friends with some players from the Hilltop team in London. So despite a Manchester team being in the final he gave a shout-out to the London side; I don’t know if he knew who they were playing,” Abdi said.
Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold also recorded a good-luck video for Hilltop.
“To have those two top-level players take time out of their day to the competition was really nice. We just need (Gareth) Bale or (Aaron) Ramsey this year for us,” he said.
The league allows for three non-Somali players to be playing at any one time. The Warriors have players from Pakistan, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea and Morocco. It is their Islamic faith that brings them together.
“The mosque plays a huge part in the lives of the team as many of the players are practicing Muslims,” Abdi said.
“There are two mosques in Butetown, and one particularly, the Noor El Islam, is one of the oldest mosques in the UK and the oldest masjid in Wales with a rich history and a strong sense of community.”
This year, the Warriors are hopeful for more success in the tournament, but for the first time they will have to balance it with their debut in the Welsh leagues — namely, the Highadmit Projects South Wales Alliance Football League.
In Wales, a separate league pyramid system exists from the English one. While Welsh clubs Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County, Wrexham and Merthyr Tydfil play in the English divisions, all other teams in Wales play in the Cymru leagues (Cymru is the Welsh name for Wales).
The Warriors have a long way to go to reach the Cymru Premier, but that is their goal. They’ve started at the bottom but they are determined to make their way to the top. The top teams in the Cymru Premier League can play in the UEFA Champions League proper.
That will take time and money. The Warriors are fortunate to have access to a pitch that meets the standards of a club in the Cymru Premier League, a gantry for TV crews and seating for fans.
“The aspiration of the Warriors is to reach the pinnacle of the Welsh League and have a developed youth system with qualified coaches and a women and girls’ set-up too,” Noor said.
“We know all this takes time and investment; it won’t happen overnight so we take each year as it comes and hope to do better than the last year,” he said. “As a club we are open to new ideas and volunteers who can contribute to our vision, and whether from the community or not we welcome anyone that is willing to work with us to get to where we deserve to be.
“It’s no secret we have talented players in abundance in our Butetown and South Cardiff communities, and as much as we would like players to stay with us and help us on our journey, we won’t stand in the way of any player that attracts interest from teams in leagues above us.”
With proper funding, there is a belief that the Warriors could help to unearth a local Muslim player from the community who could go on to play for a top club, and ultimately the Welsh national team.
“Watching Muslim players in the Premier League, such as (Mohamed) Salah, has definitely inspired our younger generation into believing they too can follow in their footsteps, especially as the players hold on to their faith and actively practice it, whether it’s during Ramadan and they have a break during the game to break their fast or during celebrations where many Muslim players celebrate by prostrating and thanking god for their success,” Abdi said.
It is the Warriors’ abiding love for the community that is behind the club’s desire to help Cardiff City to find a real local player.
The Warriors have forged a strong bond with their local club. When they won the Champions League, they approached Cardiff City Foundation.
“When we brought the trophy back to Cardiff I put in a call to Cardiff City Foundation and said, ‘Look you’ve following us on social (media) do you want to meet the boys that have brought home the Champions League?’” Abdi said.
“The boys were paraded on the pitch at half-time, they were in the match-day magazine, and on pitch-side they were able to walk around with the crowd clapping and cheering; some young fans wanted photos with the boys.”
It can be said that Cardiff has not tapped into certain communities, so this is where Abdi and the club’s foundation have taken matters into their own hands.
“Through our relationship with the Cardiff City Foundation, we hosted a talent ID day in the community,” he said.
“The academy said that if we identify players in the under-10s they’ll bring in the coaches, put them through a series of drills and if there are any pathways available we’ll signpost them in the right direction.
“To everyone’s delight, that afternoon five were told to return to a future development camp, and one out of them has now signed for the academy.”
In another example of the club’s heart, Mohamed Abdulla and others take turns in mentoring the young player and supporting him with his development in their own time.
“He’s now played games in Liverpool, Manchester and Chelsea, and the boys go and watch him and support him,” Abdi said.
Normally, if a football team is on a filmset, it is at the end of a successful journey, when their story is ready to be told to the world.
But when Cardiff Bay Warriors ventured into Wolf Studios Wales recently it was to celebrate a new start, with a new partnership.
The studios, which are based in Cardiff Bay, have been used to film TV shows such as “A Discovery of Witches” and “His Dark Materials,” and most recently, “Doctor Who.”
The Warriors have forged a partnership with Screen Alliance Wales, who had wanted to reach out to the local community and found the Somali team to be the perfect vehicle to do that.
On the night, Abdulla said that talent in Butetown often goes unnoticed and hopes this partnership will make a difference.
“I am hoping that the community can take advantage of the opportunities presented by the TV industry and that our link with Screen Alliance Wales is able to be the spark that makes this happen,” he said.
And there’s that word again; community. With the Warriors, it’s always there, at the heart of everything the club stands for.