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Militias declare war on soccer in battle for youth


Monday, July 12, 2010

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ON A police base in this war-scarred capital, the players on Somalia's under-17 national soccer team practise 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 passed the ball around puddles.

If you thought the biggest woes a national soccer team could face are injured players, bad decisions by referees or boisterous fans blowing vuvuzelas, think again. In Somalia, playing soccer is an exercise in evading death.

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

In the past month, militants 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.

''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 Mogadishu. ''This is really why al-Shabab fights with us.''

Ali's team has no choice but to play on the police base: al-Shabab has taken over both of Mogadishu's stadiums to train recruits.

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.

''I don't go any place. 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 Mahad returned to his village to play soccer. A Somali soccer federation official spotted him and gave him a trial.

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

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

The federation, too, faces a delicate balancing act. Its main office is inside the al-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.

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.

Source: WASHINGTON POST