The country where watching football carries a death sentence – and the federation flouting it

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In Somalia, fundamental warlords have executed football players, administrators and even armchair fans.  But it's not killing the sport, as Omar Almasri reports

For many years, Somalia has suffered turmoil, unrest, separation, devastation and divides within its people; it has been littered with violence, deaths, wars and a horrific drought. The country is now trying to revive the sport which has brought them back together and for moments, has helped them to forget their troubles: football.

Somalia has been affected by clan fundamentalism, the rule of warlords and government collapse since the late 1980s. The turmoil has affected the sport in the country, with young potential footballers being either recruited by these militant groups or being too frightened for their lives to play football.

The most infamous clan today is the Al Shabab. The group has dominated the headlines, not just for its crimes, but also for its stance on football. Al Shabab banned Somalis from playing the sport or watching it on TV, threatening to kill anyone who gets caught doing either.

It's not an idle threat. During the 2010 World Cup, two young Somalis were killed after being caught watching a match on television. Another sad example was the tragic killing of rising star Abdi Salaan Mohamed Ali in a car bombing which killed 10 others a few months ago; the group has also detained a 19-year-old Somali international player, Sa’ad Saleh Hussain.

Somalis gather to watch the 2010 World Cup

Local football club owners have also been detained and tortured on charges of misguiding the youth. Journalists have been targeted – one was killed in March of this year after covering a football match. Even the President of the Somali Football Federation suffered an assassination attempt, which he narrowly escaped.

Somalia’s situation has had a huge effect on the nation’s progress on the football stage. Although many Somalis are mad about the sport and the country has some excellent footballing talent, most of the best players have understandably left the country to further their careers and practice the sport without fearing for their lives.

The exports include Somalia’s all-time international top scorer and captain Issa Aden Abshir (also known as Cisse Aadan Abshir). Now a star forward for Norwegian side Eidsvold Turn, he is the only player to score over 30 goals with Somalia’s national side; in 2011 he was voted Somalia’s Player of the Decade.

There are others following his example: Liban Abdi plays for Hungarian side Ferencvaros; Juventus youth-teamer Ayub Daud is on loan with Serie B side Gubbio. Manchester City's Abisalam Ibrahim is currently on loan at NEC Nijmegen in Holland, but he became the first player of Somali/East African origin to play in the Premier League – although he is likely to play for Norway rather than Somalia internationally.

Despite the national side possessing such gifted and wonderful talent, the team languishes at 190th in the FIFA rankings and 49th amongst African nations. Somalia has never qualified to either the Africa Cup of Nations or the World Cup.

The Somali Football Federation, which was founded in 1951 and entered FIFA in 1962, has had trouble maintaining training and other football-related infrastructure due to the militant presence in the country. The capital Mogadishu’s stadium, which was once one of East Africa’s most impressive stadiums and can hold around 70,000 fans, is now an Islamic training and recruitment centre for Al Shabab while the national team trains and plays matches at the country’s police academy, dressed in mismatched attire on a goalpost-free pitch covered with mud, rocks and rusty cans.

But with military action forcing the fundamentalists out of Mogadishu, football is re-establishing itself. The Somali Federation have launched a campaign under the slogan “Put down the gun, pick up the ball”, to encourage young Somalis to take up football and to stay away from guns and violence. The Football For Peace tournament was organised to encourage the reopening of highways in the capital.

Football returns to Mogadishu beach

The federation has also appointed technical and administrative representatives in Europe and North America to promote the national side and to receive funds to rebuild football-related infrastructure and for new and better football attire.

New help is being sought to aid Somalia's football development. The federation has launched coaching courses to create young coaches. The first of the courses was launched in May and was held at the Somali Students Union in Mogadishu. At least 28 young Somali football coaches participated in this 12-day course, which the federation promises to hold once every six months.

Somalia will also return to international competition in November with the preliminary round of World Cup 2014 qualifiers against Ethiopia, followed by the annual Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup in Tanzania and the All Arab Games in Doha.

The Somali federation has worked hard to help the country progress in the sport. The hope is that the suffering of millions can be brought to an end.

Omar Almasri writes for O-Posts and thanks James Dorsey of The Turbulent World Of Middle East Soccer for help with this article.