Under threat of violence, Somalis play soccer -- or watch -- at their peril

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, July 11, 2010; A10

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- On a police base in this war-scarred capital, the players on Somalia's under-17 national soccer team practice in mismatched attire for a match against Egypt. Their field is a forlorn, uneven patch of earth covered with mud, rocks and rusty cans. There are no goal posts.

"The fighting is crippling our ability to train," lamented Yusuf Ali, the team's coach, as his players maneuvered the ball around puddles the size of swimming pools.

If you thought the biggest woes a national soccer team could face are injured players, bad calls by referees or boisterous fans blowing thousands of plastic horns called vuvuzelas, think again. In Somalia, playing soccer is an exercise in evading death. For soccer-crazed Somalis, merely watching this year's World Cup, the first in Africa, has required bottomless reserves of courage.

Al-Shabab, a hard-line Islamic militia that is waging a campaign of terror across Somalia, has banned playing soccer in many areas it controls. The al-Qaeda-linked militia, along with Hezb-i-Islam, a rival extremist group, prohibited broadcasts of the World Cup, describing the sport as "a satanic act" that corrupts Muslims.

The militants have brutally targeted politicians, clerics and peacekeepers -- anyone who has challenged their extreme views. But in the past month, they have killed at least five people and arrested scores more for watching the World Cup. They have detained and tortured local soccer club owners on charges of misguiding youth.

Yet the players on Somalia's national soccer team have pressed forward, doing their best to train and play matches. Thousands of Somalis living in areas controlled by al-Shabab have slipped into the sliver of territory ruled by the U.S.-backed transitional government to watch the televised matches.

Somali soccer federation officials declare their defiance of al-Shabab's dictates nothing less than a struggle for the nation's youth.

"If we keep the young generation for football, al-Shabab can't recruit them to fight," said Somali soccer federation head Abdulghani Sayeed, who stays at a heavily guarded hotel in the capital, Mogadishu. "This is really why al-Shabab fights with us."

'No choice but to die'

Ali's team has no choice but play on the police base: Al-Shabab has taken over both of Mogadishu's stadiums to train recruits, most of whom are also younger than 17.

Since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, an incessant civil war has suffocated the development of Somalia's soccer players. The national team has never qualified for the World Cup or the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent's championships. With the rise of al-Shabab, their world has, more than ever, closed in -- geographically and psychologically.

Militants have plucked children from soccer fields and forced them to join their militia. Many players and their families have fled al-Shabab-controlled areas. They have carried along their fear, and a lack of confidence in the weak government's ability to protect them.

"I don't go anyplace. I just stay in my apartment," said Mahad Mohammed, 16, a team member who lives with his parents. "It's possible al-Shabab will arrest me or make me join them."

It's a life Mohammed has already lived. He is a former child soldier. At 11, he served as a bodyguard for a warlord. At 14, his boss was assassinated and Mohammed returned to his village to play soccer. A Somali soccer federation official spotted him and gave him a tryout.

"I don't want to return to that life," Mohammed said.

Most players keep a low profile, careful even about their choice of words.

"No one talks about al-Shabab," Ali said. "If we criticize them, we will be attacked."

The federation, too, faces a delicate balancing act. Its main office is inside the Shabab-controlled Bakara market. But its members are too scared to move it to government territory. "Al-Shabab will think we support the government and escalate attacks against us," Sayeed explained.

"If we kill you, we will get closer to God," began an e-mail sent to Somalia's national soccer federation in December.

That forced officials to give up the idea of holding a nationwide soccer tournament. But that didn't stop al-Shabab from sending a second e-mail 12 days later to increase pressure.

"This is the last warning for you to take the path of Islam. If you don't, you have no choice but to die," the e-mail read. "Do you think the non-believer police can guarantee your security?"

Still, federation officials are determined to keep soccer alive. Later this month, the federation is planning to hold a tournament in schools for 10- to 12-year-olds, who are also prime recruits for the militias.

"We will never give up," Sayeed said.

Under no illusions

At Supercinema, a ramshackle video hall in a government-controlled nook of Mogadishu, rusty chairs are lined up for Sunday's World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain. Colorful posters from Indian Bollywood films, extremely popular among Somalis, grace the walls.

Six months ago, al-Shabab militants sent co-owner Ali Jailani text messages ordering him not to show the Bollywood films because the militia had branded them morally corrupt. He shut down the hall.

But last month, Jailani re-opened for the World Cup. It was too profitable a business opportunity to miss. He changed his cellphone number and hired five armed guards to protect the premises.

On Wednesday, he said that more than 500 Somalis watched the semifinal game between Spain and Germany; many were from al-Shabab-controlled areas. Still, Jailani is under no illusions. If al-Shabab threatened him, "there is no question" that he will close down.

"I pray nothing will happen between now and Sunday," he said, flashing a nervous smile.

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