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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Refugees once, match-winners now, Denmark’s African riches

When Pione Sisto was picked for the Denmark junior team four years ago, his parents were understandably very excited. And they wanted to show their son just how much. So, when he addressed the Danish media a day later to announce his selection, Mr and Mrs Sisto decided to gate-crash the press conference in rather dramatic fashion.
It was Papa Sisto who barged in first. He was shirtless and had white powder (in African culture signifies hope and purity) dabbed all over his face and body though the spectacles were still on. He was also carrying what looked like a wooden spear with a blunt bottom. Mama Sisto wasn’t too far behind and she too had her forehead, cheeks and chin covered in white paint with a spear of her own to boot.
While the media sat shell-shocked, the couple then broke into traditional African song and dance – armed with hooting, shrieking and loud chanting. Soon enough, even the slightly hesitant Sisto was made to take his jersey off as his father applied the white powder on him before the family posed for pictures in a rather fascinating throwback to their roots.
The exact origin of the ritual could either have been Ugandan or South Sudanese. The Sistos were originally from South Sudan before they fled to Uganda to escape the civil war. It was there in Kampala that the last of their eight children was born before the family was on the run again, this time to Denmark as refugees. Pione was only two months old when the Sistos moved into their new home in the village of Hoejslev Stationsby, some 370 km north of Copenhagen. Sisto and his big family had been granted Danish citizenship only a few weeks before he was roped into the national under-21 squad in December 2014. Less than a year later, he was scoring a winner in the junior European Championships against the Czech Republic in Prague and garnering front-page headlines, one of which read, “Today I’m a Danish match-winner: Once, I was a Refugee”.
Today, the Celta Vigo mainstay is one of the few players in the Denmark senior team who have started every match since October 2016. But he isn’t the only African-origin star in the Danish ranks going into their all-important clash against France in Moscow on Tuesday.
Poulsen’s flourish
Yussuf Poulsen lost his father Yurary when he was just six. With it, he lost his direct African connection too. Yurary was a Tanzanian shipper who worked on a container ship that regularly travelled between Tanga in Tanzania and Copenhagen. It was during one of these visits that he would meet Lene Poulsen, Yussuf’s mother. Yurary died of cancer though only after he’d introduced his son to football. And it’s a contribution that Poulsen has not forgotten.
To the extent that the RB Leipzig striker has always worn his father’s name on the back of his jersey, and continues to do so at the World Cup in Russia. And it’s only at Leipzig, where he’s become a key player since joining them in 2013, that he had to spend half a season scoring goals with Poulsen on his back. “When I signed, they’d already printed the ‘Poulsen’ jerseys,” as he would reveal to SportsBild.
Poulsen scored Denmark’s first goal in Russia, which was in some ways him making amends for having conceded a penalty against Peru. That was his fifth goal in 30 appearances. Sisto has had his moments but is yet to stand out so far. His only goal for Denmark came in a friendly against Panama.
The two are coming off impressive seasons for their respective clubs. Sisto only had Manchester City’s David Silva ahead of him in terms of assists in the whole of Europe during the 2017-18 season. So much so that Celta Vigo nicknamed him Pione “Asisto”. He first took the football world by storm with his double strike – home and away—against Manchester United in the 2016-17 Europa League for FC Midtjylland. It included a wonder strike from outside the box that got the attention of every top club in Europe.
The dreadlocked 6’4” tall Poulsen, who dreams of someday playing for Liverpool, has made a name for himself with his speed and ability to win tackles along with his heading prowess during his time at Leipzig. According to the Bundesliga website, he won a challenge every four minutes last season despite only starting in 18 of the club’s 30 games. Poulsen’s already showing his striking prowess on the biggest stage.
Incidentally, both Sisto and Poulsen could easily not be playing for Denmark—adopted land for one, homeland for the other. Sisto was eligible to represent Uganda but was never interested. Poulsen qualified for Tanzania through his father but claims that they never showed any interest. The 24-year-old does visit Yurary’s original land quite often and is learnt to have been a regular visitor between 1996 and 2004 before his football career took off. He visited Tanzania last year with his girlfriend and posed for pictures with elated locals during his time there.