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In Somalia, The World Cup Is A Dangerous Game

People sit around a television set to watch the opening game of the 2010 World Cup in Mogadishu
People sit around a television set to watch the opening game of the 2010 World Cup in Mogadishu
Try watching the World Cup with one eye. That is how you do it in Somalia, says one soccer fan. You keep one eye on the television screen and one eye on the door, he told the BBC, in case militants break in.

Somalia's militant groups, who control much of the country, have warned that citizens will be publicly flogged -- or worse -- if they are caught secretly watching games.

So far they have reportedly killed at least two people and arrested over 30, including one 15-year-old boy.

This makes life extremely difficult for Somali soccer fans. Sports enthusiasts all over Africa are watching the tournament with particular pride as South Africa hosts the tournament this year.

Fifteen-year-old Mahad Mohammed Hajji, the captain of Somalia's Under-17 national football team, can hardly contain his excitement for the games. "We are Africa," he says.

Even though Hajji is able to watch the tournament in the part of the capital city protected by African Union peacekeeping troops, he says everyone feels pressured because "very simply, the insurgents are refusing [to allow people] to watch the games."

Islamist leader Sheik Abu Yahya Al Iraqi defended the ban hours before the world's largest sports event kicked off on June 11 by explaining that, "Football descended from the old Christian cultures and our Islamic administration will never allow watching what they call the FIFA World Cup."

Shari'a Law

Somali Sports Press Association deputy head Shafi’i Mohyaddin Abokar explains what happens when Somali sports fans defy the ban. "Militants attacked a house where people were watching World Cup games secretly," he says. "They shot and killed two sons who tried to jump over the wall." He said they arrested 10 people at the house.

Somalia's Transitional Federal government on June 15 condemned the violence in a statement saying that Somalis should be able to watch the games "without fear of loss of life."

But Abokar says there are concerns over the more than 30 people so far arrested because "we don't know what the militants are doing" to them. He says relatives are not allowed to see them.

Somalia's two leading militias, "Hizbul Islam" and "Al Shabab," impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law in the areas they control. Islamic authorities consider soccer a "satanic act" and banned people from watching games as far back as 2006.

Ethiopian forces pushed the Islamist regime out of the country in 2007, but Islamic militants have gained power in much of the country in recent years. Tens of thousands of Somalis have died in the ongoing violence.