With the teams for the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil set (BBC News), it should come as no surprise to anyone that Somalia is not one of the 32 participants. Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria will represent Africa and Ghana will likely be one of the favorites. Somalia did not field a team during the qualifying rounds due to prohibitions against playing and watching football issued by Al Shabaab which controlled most of Somalia until last year. However, Somalia will be able to participate in qualifying for the next African Cup of Nations and the next World Cup, participation that seemed almost impossible just two years ago.
In 2011, as part of its campaign to impose control and its own version of Sharia on Somalia, Al Shabaab banned all watching of football, on television and in person. Al Shabaab threatened to punish any who defied their “order against bad traditions” (The Somalia Report). This ban followed Al Shabaab’s bombing of two nightclubs in Kampala, Uganda on the night of the World Cup Final in Johannesburg in 2010 which killed 74 people and injured dozens more (BBC News). These bans and attacks were not about football or about Islam, but about demonstrating Al Shabaab’s total control in Somalia and its ability to attack those who opposed the group.
With the success of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the military support received by the United Nations-backed government from Ethiopia and Kenya, portions of Somalia have been liberated from Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab still holds sway in much of the country, but Mogadishu, Kismayo and several other cities are under the control of the Somali government led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Development projects have re-started and a re-invigorated AMISOM force will soon launch another campaign against Al Shabaab. The narrative of Somalia has changed from the World’s Worst Failed State (a title soon to be taken by the Central African Republic) to a security-challenged partner in East Africa. Somalia is by no means out of the woods as near daily stories of Al Shabaab attacks demonstrate the continuing threat, but where the international community once saw a hopeless situation, it can now see a viable state in the not-too-distant future.
With liberation from Al Shabaab has come football. It’s not great football, Somalia is currently ranked 201st in the world just behind those footballing powers of the British Virgin Islands and Andorra and just ahead of neighboring Djibouti and South Sudan (FIFA), but in addition to playing its first international matches in years, a domestic league has resumed. With eight teams and a completely renovated Banadir Stadium in Mogadishu (paid for by FIFA who has been asked to fund renovations of other stadiums), Somalis can choose to watch football (Sabahi) and thousands chose to come out and watch the opening match of the season (won by Heegan, 3-2 over Gaadiidka). That choice is the important element. Other outlets are talking about football’s ability to be a peace-building tool which is important (RFI), but just having to opportunity to play and watch football should be the story. Among the 20,000 spectators in the stands at a game over the weekend were many women, a mingling of the sexes also banned by Al Shabaab (Bloomberg News). In addition to the new domestic league games, the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) is exploring the possibility of hosting a youth tournament in Somalia with the participation of teams from the member associations, including the countries that have supported the AMISOM peacekeepers, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi (RBC Radio).
Side note, the Banadir Stadium is not the Mogadishu Stadium that has been used many times over the last 20 years as a military staging site including by the United Nations peacekeepers that were called in to rescue the US Army Rangers and Special Forces operators after the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993. Banadir Stadium was severely damaged by mortar fire in 2009 when Somali government forces attacked Al Shabaab members who were using the stadium as a base. Banadir Stadium now has an astro-turf pitch and VIP seating.
Football in Somalia is a sign of belief on the part of the Somali people that conditions are improving. After 20 years of conflict, famine and dislocation, it’s good just to be able to enjoy a game. Somalis believe that they will be safe at the stadium; they have disposable income to afford a ticket; they feel there is value in entertainment. The mere fact that a game can be played shows that change has happened in Somalia, or at least in the capitol. Over the coming years, the Somali government, neighboring states and the international community must consolidate the gains that have been made, but in the meantime, play ball.