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It may have its work cut out but the beautiful game is changing lives in Somalia...

Somalia is a hard one. Looking behind the headlines for examples of how football can bridge divides, bring people together and provide hope is the reason behind this Football United series but few countries have such a bad press.

The general perception of this East African nation is not positive. Whether it be ‘Black Hawk Down’, a movie that shows US military action in the capital city of Mogadishu and one that is almost obligatory to mention when writing about this part of the world, constant reports of fighting in the nation or the increasingly active pirates that operate off Somalia’s lengthy coastline, negative headlines abound.

There is no getting around the fact that Mogadishu itself is no place for the faint-hearted. Just last month, nine teenagers were killed playing football in the city by two mortar bombs exchanged between the government forces and rebel Islamic militant forces -yet more casualties of a devastating civil war that started in 1991. Since then, Somalia has had no working central government and rebels control large parts of the country.

Football takes a back seat amid such chaos and battles for survival but most Somalis remember the times when the stadiums were full of supporters and players as opposed to soldiers and military hardware.

The country’s largest arena, Stadium Mogadishu, which used to rock to the beat of 70,000 passionate fans, doesn’t host football games any more. Now, it is the training base home of hundreds of Al Shabab fighters, an Al-Qaeda proxy Islamist group in Somalia who occupied the stadium a year ago when Ethiopian troops – who had been stationed from January 2007 to January 2009 - vacated the facility.

That wasn’t the first time the country’s main sporting venue had been sequestered by an army. In 1993, it was a base for the Pakistani contingent of United Nations peacekeeping forces which were deployed into Somalia in the year before as fighting first broke out. The other football stadium in the city, Banadir, was being rebuilt with FIFA funds but the project is on hold due to daily armed confrontations in the Abdel-aziz district in the east city.

The national team used to train at Abdel-Aziz but the near-constant fighting in the district forced training sessions to be moved to the Somali police academy. It is there that Somalia prepares for a vital 2011 African Nations Championship (not to be confused with the African Nations Cup as the teams that make it to Sudan next year will be made up only of players who play in their country’s domestic leagues) qualifier against Tanzania next month. The winner will face either Rwanda or Eritria for a place in Sudan.

Unsurprisingly, FIFA doesn’t allow international games to be played in Somalia. For qualification matches, the team has to play either just one leg away from home, or use neighbouring Djibouti, ironically the team that lost to Somalia last round, as a temporary home.

“We play in military or police camps and train there. We will face Tanzania and we believe that we can win," captain Yusuf Ali told

Captain Yusuf Ali Is Ready For Tanzania

“Training has been terrible at times because there is a lot of fighting and we have seen it during training but we do our best. The national team is very important for Somali people, it is their national team, but we don’t have a stable country. It is a bad situation.”

“Somali people love football (in Mogadishu alone there were over 500 cinemas where people used to come together for watching the big games but they have all closed after militants attacked these places, killing and wounding many fans) but at the moment, there are no people to support us. If we get a chance to play at home many people would come. We are disadvantaged because when you play at home, you play at 100%, you try everything in order to get the win. Djibouti is not Somalia. Last year we played in Kenya, there are Somali people there and they came to support us.”

Worse is the fact that many of the warlords’ armies are made up of young boys. Taking advantage of the rampant poverty in parts of the country, these child soldiers can be tempted into the armed ranks of the various warlords vying to win power by tales of excitement and promises of money.Getting in the army is easy as the armies look for bored and poor teenagers but getting out is another story entirely.

That is where the Somalia Football Federation (SFF), helped financially by FIFA and a diminishing number of football-friendly companies like Nation Link Telecom and Deega Enterprises, have come in.

The SFF have started a campaign called ‘Put down the gun, pick up the ball.’ This targets the child soldiers and boys on the street and has given them a way back to something approaching a normal life through the beautiful game. The fact that the warlords, once largely supportive of the game and providers of security at the biggest matches, have taken to describing the playing of football as ‘satanic’ is a sign that the program is succeeding.

Mahad Mohamed was a child soldier but is now part of the national team set-up. The teenager was reluctant to talk too much about his time with a gun is is hand and preferred to talk about having a ball at his feet. He told that he was happy to leave that part of his life behind.

“I just drifted into being a soldier; it is hard to say how it happened. Some friends of mine ended up being soldiers and they used to tell me that it was good and exciting life and much better than doing nothing or being on the streets. After I spent some time doing that, I understood that it wasn’t like that at all and I was happy to get out.”

Mahad Mohammed Has Put Down The Gun

“It is difficult to be a soldier but football is interesting. You can money for playing if you a good player.”

He is that. The defender made his debut in December for the Ocean Stars and is expected to take the field in the vital match against Tanzania.

Mohamed is one, very good, example but national team coach Mohamed Abdulle Farayare testifies to the program’s success in hundreds of case.

“I have been the coach of the national team since 2009,” he told “It is not easy, as you may imagine, but the Somali Football Federation is starting to rehabilitate young boys. I have some boys who used to be child soldiers in the team here.

“The SFF organizes all this and trains the young boys and some of them stay for as many as five years. The SFF has its coaches and training grounds. I visit these camps every month and choose the best players and they train with me.

“The SFF always wants more boys playing football. They find out the situation of the boys and they target those who are from very poor backgrounds and try to help those through football. What then happens is that one of then goes home and tells everyone about his experience and it can encourage and inspire others.

“They used to be soldiers and we target as many soldiers as possible. We train those who were working for the warlords. The training is not just physical. There is psychological training too. When they first come, they have some problems and are aggressive but we cool them down and train them and they are strong. They are mentally strong.

“In total, there are about 400 boys (deputy president of Somali football federation Ali Said Guled Roble told us that actually 347 former child soldiers are now football players. “They have now learned how to play football well and more clubs in Somalia are interested in them” Ali said.) who have been in the program. Most of the boys enjoy it very much None have gone back to the army. They don’t want to be involved in that kind of life any more.”

Mohamed is luckier than most, though it is, of course, relative. He is playing his part in helping his country compete with the rest of the continent in football and is dreaming of representing his nation.

Somalia Have A Spring In Their Step These Days

There is some disappointment in missing out at the chance of playing in the first World Cup to be held on the African continent but such dreams will be far away for Somalia even when peace returns. With a past like the one he has had Mahad Mohamed can be forgiven for looking only ahead and in football that means the next big game. The match with Tanzania is certainly that.

“We tried our best to qualify for 2010 but we can’t even play at home so it is a big disadvantage for us,” he said. “Now home is Djibouti. We will play Tanzania there and we will try our best. We want to play in the tournament in Sudan. We want to be one of those eight.

“ I am ready and I am proud to have the flag of Somalia on my chest when I play football.”

John Duerden and Shafi'i Mohyaddin Abokar