Nigeria's El-Kanemi Warriors aim for home

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Maiduguri (Nigeria) (AFP)

The Nigerian city of Maiduguri has been among the worst affected by Boko Haram Islamists' deadly insurgency. Less noticed among the carnage has been the exile of the northeastern city's top-flight football team.

But with a relative calm returning gradually to the Borno state capital after a year-long counter-insurgency, El-Kanemi Warriors FC are now hoping for an emotional comeback.

Officials are trying to convince the Nigeria Football Federation and, crucially, the 19 other clubs in the Nigeria Premier League that Maiduguri is a safe place for players and fans.

Should all clubs agree to the proposal, league organisers will inspect the club's 10,000-capacity ground before the new season gets under way later this month.

Club manager Ladan Bosso said approval to play again in Maiduguri would help the city and its citizens recover after so much bloodshed.

"When there's no peace, there's no football," he told AFP. "We can bring football to bring about peace in the community...

"By the special grace of God, we should come back to the city of Maiduguri so the people should be happy."

- 'Very difficult' -

Pre-season training began two weeks ago for the 35-member El-Kanemi squad: gym sessions in the morning and ball work in the afternoon.

Plumes of dust and sand kick up from the bumpy training pitch as the players practise at the sprawling University of Maiduguri campus, where a small group of supporters has turned out to watch.

The team, made up from players from across Nigeria as well as neighbouring Cameroon and Chad, head to the northern city of Katsina at the weekend for a 14-day training camp and pre-season friendlies.

The first league match is pencilled in for February 21 against Wikki Tourists in what the players hope will signal the start of a campaign to improve on last season's 13th position and 14th the year before.

Goalkeeper and captain George Michael, now in his sixth year at the club, attributed the below-par performances to having to play all their home matches at a neutral ground for the last two years.

"It was very, very difficult... We haven't enjoyed it," he said.

The last time they played home games in Maiduguri, El-Kanemi came fourth in the 2013 season, raising hopes they can match the feat -- or better it -- if they are given permission to return this time around.

"We're hoping for a continental ticket, top three," said Michael, referring to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League for domestic league winners and CAF Confederation Cup for runners-up.

- 'Brings us together' -

Security will be uppermost in the minds of both the league and fellow clubs when considering El-Kanemi's application.

The city where Boko Haram was founded has been repeatedly hit by suicide and bomb attacks in recent months, despite the military's claimed successes against the jihadists.

Just last weekend, at least 85 people were killed in an attack about 10 kilometres (six miles) outside the city in the extremists' latest targeting of civilians in the Muslim-majority north.

The Islamic State group affiliate, whose violence has left at least 17,000 dead since 2009, has previously bombed crowds watching football matches on large screens. The jihadists view the sport as un-Islamic.

But the club and its supporters point to the return of businesses and trade as a sign the situation is changing in Maiduguri, where Nigeria's military high command is now based and troops patrol the streets.

"Even when they (Boko Haram) were in Maiduguri we played successfully without any hitch... Nothing bad will ever happen in Maiduguri Stadium," said club chairman Mohammed Zanna.

The return of football would also send a powerful message about the success of the counter-insurgency, he added.

It would be a relief, too, for hard-pressed fans, who were forced to travel up to 10 hours just for a home game at neutral grounds, risking insurgent attacks and ambushes along dangerous roads.

The head of the El-Kanemi Supporters Club, Isa Abdullahi Awala, said football has been a way of getting through the horrors of recent times and looking to the future.

"It brings us together... to forget everything that's happened because we love our team," he added.