Omar Almasri reports on football's struggle to survive in a country ravaged by conflict.
A country which has suffered years of turmoil and has been littered with violence, deaths, wars and now a horrific drought. A country that is now trying to revive the sport that has brought them back together and for brief moments, has helped them to forget their troubles. The country that is trying to revive its football culture is the great country of Somalia.
Somalia is a place where unrest and devastation are not surprising sights and what its people, unfortunately, have been used to for many years. This nation has been affected by clan fundamentalism, the rule of warlords, and government collapse from the late 1980’s. The most recognized and infamous clan today is the Al Shabab, who have been involved in many brutal crimes since its establishment in 2004. The group’s main goal is to topple the government and it is known to have close ties with Al Qaeda. The group or clan has claimed thousands of innocent lives, trying to gain power and strike fear, in order to gain a foothold on the country.
The turmoil and chaos began in the final years of the Cold War. The government began to experience a state of collapse, which led to the rise of various clans and groups who sought control of the country. Millions of lives have been taken during this long conflict and many others have fled the country over the years. Somali sport has been affected terribly, with potential footballers either recruited by these militant groups or being too frightened for their lives to play the game.
Al Shabab has dominated the headlines, not only for their crimes, but also for their stance on football. The group banned Somalis from playing and watching their most popular sport on TV and has threatened to kill anyone who gets caught doing either. They’re not messing around. During the World Cup in South Africa, two young Somalis were killed after being caught watching a match on television.
Another example of the group enforcing their ban was the tragic killing of a rising star by the name of Abdi Salaan Mohamed Ali, in a car bombing which killed ten others recently. The group has also detained a 19 year old Somali international player, Sa’ad Saleh Hussain in Afgoye 30 km south of the capital. Local football club owners have been detained and tortured on charges of misguiding youth. A Somali journalist was killed in March of this year after covering a football match and the President of the Somali Football Federation narrowly escaped an assassination attempt as well.
Somalia’s history of violence, fights and crimes against the innocent for the past 20 years, has had a huge effect on the nation’s progress on the football stage. It’s a country whose people are devoted to the sport and has some excellent footballing talent, most of whom have sadly left the country to further their careers and practice the sport without fearing for their lives.
Some of these players who left include Somalia’s all time international top scorer and captain Issa Aden Abshir (also known as Cisse Aadan Abshir), who is a star forward for Norwegian side Eidsvold Turn and was voted as Somalia’s Player of the Decade. Another player is Liban Abdi, who plays for Hungarian side Ferencvaros and Ayub Daud, who plays for the Juventus youth team and is on loan with Serie B side Gubbio.
Despite the national side possessing such talent, the team languishes in 193rd place in the FIFA rankings and 50th amongst African nations. Somalia has never qualified for either the African 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. Mogadishu’s stadium, which was once one of East Africa’s most impressive arenas and can hold around 70,000 fans, is now an Islamic training and recruitment center for Al Shabab. While the national team trained and played matches at the country’s police academy. The team played with mismatched attire on a pitch that is covered with mud, rocks and rusty cans in puddles, and had no goal posts.
The Somali Federation have launched a campaign with 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. They also organized the Football For Peace tournament in which four of the country’s districts participated: Hodon, Wardhiiglay, Kaaraan and Abdel Aziz. This tournament was held to encourage the reopening of highways in the capital and in particular the ones that serve these four districts. The federation has also appointed technical and administrative representatives in Europe and North America to promote and gain support for the national side and to receive funds to rebuild football-related infrastructure .
Courses designed to create young coaches have also been established. The first of the courses was launched in May and held at the center of the Somali Students Union in Mogadishu. At least 28 young Somali football coaches participated, which the federation promises every six months. They have also confirmed that Somalia will be playing in the preliminary round of World Cup 2014 Qualifiers against Ethiopia in November, and that the national team will be participating in the annual Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup in Tanzania and the All Arab Games in Doha in December.
The federation has worked hard to try to help the country progress in the sport and I wish the best for a country that has suffered for many years. The hope of many is that the suffering of millions can be brought to an end, and that football is able to play some role in this.