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In Somalia, watching the World Cup can get you shot

The country's hard-line Islamist insurgents have banned people from tuning in to see 'semi-nude, crazy men chasing an inflated object'.
Militants belonging to the Hizbul Islam have warned the people in Somalia against watching football.
Militants belonging to the Hizbul Islam have warned the people in Somalia against watching football.

NAIROBI // When Asamoah Gyan shot a penalty kick high and into the back of the net to give Ghana a 1-0 lead late in its World Cup match this month against Serbia, all of Africa let out a collective vuvuzela blast. In Nairobi, the noise from the colourful plastic horns could be heard blaring from sports bars across the city. The final whistle blew a few minutes later and Ghana's lead held up giving the underdog side the first African victory at the world's largest football tournament in South Africa.

Fans from Cape Town to Cairo celebrated the success of Ghana - the only African team to win its opening match. Indeed, almost everyone on this football-crazy continent has gone mad for the World Cup, the first played on African soil. In large cities across Africa, streets are empty during the matches as people pack into cafes to catch the action. In rural areas, fans crowd around generator-powered televisions in thatched roof community centres to watch the matches.

But there is one place in Africa where the vuvuzelas are silent and the matches are watched with the volume turned off. In Somalia, which is mostly controlled by hard-line Islamist insurgents, watching football can get you arrested, or even killed. Two militant groups, Hizbul Islam and al Shabab, rule much of southern Somalia with a strict moral code similar to that once used by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The groups have banned music and dancing. Women are not allowed to wear bras. Gold fillings are pulled from people's mouths for being un-Islamic. Now even the world's most popular sport is taboo.

Sheikh Mohamed Osman Arus, head of operations for Hizbul Islam, said: "We don't want our people to be preoccupied with semi-nude, crazy men jumping up and down who are chasing an inflated object. Football is an inheritance from the primitive infidels, and we can never accept people to watch it. We are directing a final warning to those who want to watch it." The Islamists are fighting against the weak United Nations-backed government, which controls only a few city blocks in the crumbling, battle-scarred capital of Mogadishu, along with the help of African Union peacekeepers. The three-year insurgency in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation has left 21,000 people dead and forced 1.5 million from their homes.

Residents within the government-run areas have gathered in people's houses to watch the World Cup, according to Feisal Omar, a Somali photographer. "I watch the football games inside my house with some friends on a TV screen, and simply we follow the World Cup games here every day," he wrote in an email from Mogadishu. "Many people in my neighbourhood also watch the games inside their houses, and friends in the other end of the city, particularly the strongholds of the Islamists, also told me they simply watch the soccer games at their houses."

Large public showings of football matches, however, are targeted by Islamists. Last week, militants killed two people and arrested dozens of others in the town of Afgoye for breaking the ban on watching the World Cup on television, Reuters reported. "Hizbul Islam killed two people and arrested 35 others, all World Cup fans," said Ali Yasin Gedi, vice chairman of the Elman rights group. "Islamists unexpectedly entered houses in Afgoye district and then fired at some people who tried to jump over the wall to escape."

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) condemned the ban on watching football and said that Somalis must be allowed to watch the World Cup. "The Somali people, like everyone else in Africa, should be able to watch the tournament without fear of loss of life," the TFG said in a statement. "The recent killings by al Shabab and Hizbul Islam highlight yet again their barbarism, brutality and intolerance of Somali culture and values. The killing of Somalis for watching football is the latest in a long line of un-Somali and un-Islamic activities by the extremists."

This is not the first time football watching has been banned in Somalia for being un-Islamic. During the 2006 World Cup, the Islamic Courts Union, which ruled the country at the time also barred viewing of the matches. As the Islamists try to consolidate power, they will likely find little support for their ban from Somalis, who are as passionate about football as the rest of the world, according to Steve Bloomfield, author of the book Africa United: How football explains Africa.

"A ban on watching the World Cup is not going to win the Islamists any friends," he said. "Somalis, like other Africans, love their football. I'm sure they will find a way through radio, television and the internet to keep up to speed with what is going on in South Africa." mbrown@thenational.ae

Updated: June 26, 2010 04:00 AM



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