Petr David Josek/AP
Costa Rica's goalkeeper Keylor Navas watches as Greece's Giorgos Samaras heads the ball past Costa Rica defenders during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Costa Rica and Greece at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Sunday, June 29, 2014.

Al Shabab's biggest problem with World Cup soccer (they may like it)

The extremist Somalis have killed soccer fans and bombed stadiums. But it seems their jihadis love the beautiful game and have their own 'halal' team. A score requires an 'Alahu Akbar!' 

A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

When Al Shabab, the violent Islamist group in Somalia, took control of the capital city Mogadishu, it actively destroyed buildings and overt displays of Western institutions and influences.

This included outlawing soccer. The group destroyed cinemas and viewing centers in Mogadishu during the 2010 World Cup to stop residents from watching the matches.

Their first successful international attack was the twin explosions in Uganda’s capital Kampala at viewing stations during the tournament.

When regional and international forces ousted Al Shabab from the city in 2011, the city’s soccer stadium was one of the first things to be restored. Al Shabab had dug trenches in the field and used it as an operations base.

Yet soccer is played and enjoyed throughout sub Saharan Africa, and is not commonly associated with Western or colonial influences, but is seen as thoroughly African.

Al Shabab’s condemnation of soccer as "haram" or forbidden is also not a commonly held categorization among Islamist groups or nations with conservative Muslim governments.

In Afghanistan under the Taliban, for example, the game was discouraged but not outlawed. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran all have national teams. The Iranian team is playing in the World Cup in Brazil this year; they tied in their match with Nigeria on June 16, and lost to Argentina on June 21.

Al Shabab continues to hold territory in central Somalia and soccer is outlawed in those areas under its control. The proscription against the so called “beautiful game” is however not complete. Al Jazeera journalist Hamza Mohamed published on June 11 an article on Al Shabab's “halal soccer.” The jihadi group even has their own team.

The rules of this “new” game appear to be the same as in “haram” soccer; the conduct of the players however must conform to Al Shabab’s sharia guidelines. Players must wear trousers that reach past their knees and jerseys that cover their elbows.

Mr. Hamza noted however that many of the jerseys were the same as the “haram” national teams, such as Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Chelsea.

Successful goals are celebrated with the statement or call of “Alahu Akbar” (God is great). No one over the age of forty can play because it is “unsightly seeing an old man chasing a small ball.” Nor are military commanders permitted on the field. (This is apparently to prevent their command being undermined.)

If a player swears on the pitch, their tongue is removed. Most other offenses are met with flogging and a ban on playing.

All games end fifteen minutes before prayers.

The tradition of sharing and spreading a game or sports across cultural and national boundaries is ancient, and using that arena of friendly competition as a platform of diplomacy is just as old.

While many fans and players outside Al Shabab would not react well to a flogging for misbehavior, perhaps the continuing passion of Al Shabab fighters for the “beautiful game” presents an opportunity for rapprochement and reconciliation in the future.

Emily Mellgard is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

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