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American Soccer Player Returns to His Malian Roots

A soccer player who has made a life and career in the United States has chosen to represent the country of his birth at the international level. Bakary Soumare discussed his recent experiences with the Malian national team in an interview with VOA.

A native of a small village near the border with Mauritania, in the northwestern Kayes region of Mali, Bakary Soumare fulfilled a childhood dream when he suited up for his native country in the just-completed round of World Cup qualifiers.

The tall defender, who plays professionally for the Chicago Fire of the United States' Major League Soccer, had a choice to make regarding his international affiliation. He was also being recruited to play for the United States national team, as they edged closer to qualifying for a sixth consecutive World Cup. International soccer players may represent only one nation, according to FIFA rules.

When he learned that he would be unable to obtain U.S. citizenship until after the World Cup, Soumare chose to accept the call of his native land. He says it was a decision his mother, who recently passed away, had urged him to take. "She would much rather see me representing Mali than the U.S., obviously because that is where she was born, that is where we were from. And my dad is really, really excited about me joining the team. It is exciting, you are representing the flag on the front of the jersey, and on the back of the jersey, your last name, you are representing your family," he said.

Soumare played his first official match for the Eagles, as Mali's national team is known on the continent, when the squad traveled to Sudan for the first match of the final round of African qualifiers for the World Cup.

Despite having lived for most of the past decade in the United States, Soumare says he felt 100 percent Malian by the time he arrived in Khartoum from Chicago. "When I go to Sudan, I do not go there thinking I am an American. I go to Sudan with the national team, defending my national team colors, so I go there as a Malian. I had the option to play for the U.S. or go for Mali, I felt that I would have to wait too long to play for the US, and I wanted to go back and play for my country," he said.

In search of economic opportunity, Soumare's parents brought him to Paris from the village where he was born when he was two years old.

Soumare has become a standout on the soccer fields of the United States, after moving to America from France at age 15. He attended the University of Virginia on a soccer scholarship, before joining the Chicago Fire in 2007. "Part of me wanted to play for the United States, actually, because I owe a lot to this country, especially in my growth and development as a player. A lot of it happened over there," he said.

Despite his affinity for American-brand soccer, he would also like the opportunity to play in Europe, in the world's biggest soccer leagues. He considers playing with Mali, alongside several stars who play for big European clubs, to be a good way to showcase his talents.

The year-long final round of African qualifying continues in June, with winners of each of five groups advancing to the World Cup final to be held in South Africa in the summer of 2010. Mali has never qualified for the World Cup final tournament.