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

Members of Somalia's under-17 national soccer team must practice at a police station because extremist groups al-Shabab and Hezb-i-Islam consider the sport "a satanic act." al-Shabab controls Mogadishu's two soccer stadiums, which they use to train recruits.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, July 11, 2010

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.

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"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."

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