Barawe, Somalia – As thousands of football fans descend on Brazil for the World Cup and millions across the world get ready for a summer of football festivities, in Somalia’s rebel-ruled territories a slightly different kind of football is played.
It is exactly 3.45pm local time in the picturesque port town of Barawe which acts as the al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab’s headquarters, and dozens of young men are getting ready to play “halal football” – that’s football that complies with the hardline group’s set rules for the beautiful game.
We are about a kilometre away from the town centre on a sandy white beach, close to a heavily guarded compound. That compound was raided by US navy seals in search of a top member of the group suspected of masterminding the Nairobi mall siege that left at least 67 people dead last year.
About 40 young men have put their heavy weapons aside and changed from their camouflage uniforms to football jerseys – Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea jerseys among them. Arsenal’s jersey is the most preferred among al-Shabab fighters.
But the rules of the game here are different to those set by the football governing body FIFA and followed across the globe.
No shorts are allowed. Players wear tracksuits which must reach below the knee. Even though it is warm, thanks to the sun and the warm ocean breeze, players aren’t allowed to play without tops or wear vests – all jerseys must reach elbows.
Games must finish at least 15 minutes before prayer time no matter how many minutes of a match are left on the clock. Teams who are good at late comebacks during matches are disadvantaged.
Women usually stay away from the grounds.
The beautiful game is known for its eye-catching goal celebrations. But in the rebel territories goal celebrations are moments to make statements. Some goal celebrations popular across the world are prohibited.
Blow kisses and lose your tongue
Balotelli-style stunts, in which a player removes his shirt, will result in a lifetime ban from playing football. It is seen as nudity and a player who removes his shirt is at the mercy of the al-Shabab sheikhs.
Roger Milla-style carousing of hip-gyrating by the corner flag will earn a player a public flogging and a life ban.
Blowing kisses in triumph is a big no-no, unless you want your tongue removed.
Al-Shabab referees don’t just dish out cards. Depending on the rule broken referees here sometimes dole out physical punishment such as flogging, a commander who was watching the match from the sidelines because he was older than the permitted age of 40, said.
It is “unsightly seeing an old man chasing a small ball,” is the explanation given.
Senior commanders also aren’t allowed to play the beautiful game because it brings their office into disrepute. They can only cheer from the sidelines. I watch a high-ranking commander standing off-field kicking and heading thin air, wishing he was a few years younger.
Members of the group are known for covering their faces to conceal their identities. But on this beach away from the town and the crowds, all masks are off. But when the opponent is a local team and fans crowd to watch the match, the rebel fighters often keep their faces covered. The referee is unfazed with a match where half the players’ faces are covered. This is a challenge for a referee, who will also cover his face to conceal his identity when giving out cards.
As that day’s game progresses, goal scorers celebrate by raising their index fingers in the air and shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). Other players join the celebrations by repeating, “Allahu Akbar”.
Shouting the name of al-Shabab’s Emir, Sheikh Abu Zubeyr, will also win favours with the referee, who wears long trousers, shirt and a white Muslim Kufi hat. Referees can sometimes also be spotted wearing the Muslim Imamah scarf.
One thing referees dislike more than a bad tackle is players swearing. If an al-Shabab player swears he is quickly banned from the sport and taken off frontline duty. If he was in the suicide bombers’ brigade he is removed from the list and put on a waiting list, which is the most shameful thing that can happen to a fighter and is seen as a delay to his ‘journey to paradise’.
As the sun sets and before the muezzin makes the Maghrib prayer call, the referee blows the whistle and the football jerseys come off and are replaced with camouflage uniforms.
The referee tells me the al-Shabab team is preparing for a hotly anticipated match with Barawe locals, and senior members of the group are to attend. The locals won the last meeting and the fighters were only happy not to disclose the score from that match.
After Maghrib prayer they pick up their weapons and return to their real frontlines to continue with their ‘journey to paradise’.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa