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The hunt for the day’s score is underway at the University Stadium in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

It’s only been a couple of hours since sunrise, but members of the Elman Football Club are already in the final stages of their daily training session.

They have to be up early to avoid the heat, but you won’t hear any complaints here. Not long ago, merely watching or playing in a football match could have cost them their lives.

Yusuf Ali Nur, a veteran player and coach, has steered Elman to the top of Somalia’s Division 1 league for two years running. He is now preparing his boys to defend their title when the next season kicks off in March.

Elman FC was formed in 1993, just two years after socialist leader Siad Barre was ousted by warlords. The club – which also runs vocational training programs for disadvantaged youth – somehow managed to survive the two decades of civil strife that ensued.

SOUNDBITE (Somali) YUSUF Ali Nur, Coach, Elman FC
“It shows how much we love sports, that despite the chaos going on around the city, and despite the field becoming a frontline, we were still training and playing matches here. Now you can see the area is calm and security is back, nothing like what it was before.”

In August 2011, African Union troops helped Somalia’s National Security Forces flush extremist group al-Shabaab out of the capital and their other key bases in central and southern Somalia.

The al-Qaeda-aligned militants had banned the watching and playing of football, and were using the once impressive Mogadishu National Stadium as the headquarters for their operations in the northern part of the city.

The pitch, built by the Chinese in the 1970s, was used as a training ground for their fighters, a site for executing prisoners and for assembling and testing explosives.

AMISOM troops are temporarily using the stadium to manage security operations in the seaside city but will move out as soon as possible so that the sports complex can be refurbished.

In the meantime, fans and players only have to wait for a few more months before they can begin filing through the gates of the country’s oldest stadium. The Banadiir Stadium was built in 1956, four years before Somalia’s independence from Italy.

It was also under al-Shabaab control, but thanks to the dramatic change in security, and quick moves by the new government, the Somalia Football Federation is now calling the shots.

With money from FIFA, the Federation has laid artificial turf at the 7500-capacity stadium and will soon begin repair work on seats, parking and other facilities that are currently riddled with grim reminders of the past.

SOUNDBITE (Somali) Ali Said Guled, President, Somali Football Federation
“Football prospers when peace prevails, without peace, football cannot be played. We are hope that we will have a good working relationship with the government because as law and order is enforced, football will prosper.”

On January 19, the attention of billions of football fans will be trained on Africa’s top teams as they scrimmage for the African Nations Cup – the continent’s most-coveted soccer prize.

Somalia’s national team, the ‘Ocean Stars’, is not one of the 16 teams that will be taking the field and has never taken part since the first whistle blew to start the competition in 1956.

The national team has participated in some regional competitions over the years, but sporadic training and inadequate support, have resulted in heavy losses, like the recent 7-0 thumping meted out by Burundi.

The country’s football officials are now pinning their hopes for revenge on the scores of Somali players in East African, Middle Eastern and European leagues. They will also be raiding Elman’s long list of rising stars. The club already supplies the national team with most of its starting 11.

SOUNDBITE (Somali) Hassa Hussein Mohamed, Defender, ELMAN FC
“Somalia ranks very low in regional and international tournaments because of the conflict and lack of government that we had before. Now that we have a new government, we hope they will do a lot, we hope that the Ministry of Sports and the Football Federation will work together to improve conditions and facilities for players so that in coming years we will succeed.”

Somalia has had many false starts, but the country’s now picking up speed thanks to dramatic security gains in the last few months. It’s now just a matter of doing the right things over and over again – because practice makes perfect.

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