This weekend’s arrest in France of a former Portsmouth FC youth center back on suspicion of being a violent jihadist highlights opportunities the beautiful game offers militant Islamists.

Yann Nsaku was one of 11 converts to Islam arrested in coordinated raids in several French cities, including Paris, Cannes and Strasbourg for "suspected Islamic terrorist plotting of anti-Semitic attacks," according to French police. Police said the group aimed to spark a “war across France" with the aim of imposing Islamic law. Mr. Nsaku was detained at his parental home in Cannes.

Mr. Nsaku’s case echoes the arrest and conviction in Belgium almost a decade ago of Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, a Tunisian who played for Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison. 

Both cases spotlight the fact that jihadists often start their journey as members of groups organized around some sort of action like soccer. So does analysis of a series of jihadist attacks over the past decade.

The perpetrators of the 2003 Madrid subway bombings, for example, played soccer together. Saudi players Tamer al-Thamali, Dayf Allah al-Harithi and Majid Sawat attended twice a week a militant Quran group alongside their regular soccer practice. They silently made their way in 2003 to Iraq as the Al Qaeda-led insurgency in that country gained steam. Messrs Al-Thamali and and Al-Harithi died as suicide bombers. Mr. Sawat’s father recognized his son when Iraqi television broadcast his interrogation by authorities.

Several Palestinian Hamas suicide bombers traced their routes to a mosque-sponsored soccer team in the conservative West Bank town of Hebron.  Israeli intelligence believes Hamas saw the team as an ideal recruitment pool – a tight-knit group that shared a passion for soccer, a conservative, religious worldview and deep-seated frustration with Palestinian impotency in shaking off Israeli occupation.

Men like assassinated Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were both fervent soccer fans and recognized the game’s useful bonding and recruitment qualities. It brings recruits into the fold, encourages camaraderie and reinforces militancy among those who have already joined. The track record of soccer-players-turned suicide bombers proved their point.

Nonetheless to Bin Laden as well as more mainstream, non-violent, ultra-conservative Muslims, the beautiful game also posed a challenge. In a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa soccer was until the eruption of popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa the only institution that rivaled Islam in creating public spaces to vent pent-up anger and frustration.

It also distracted from the performance of religious obligations. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Saudi Arabia’s religious guardians, afraid that believers would forget their daily prayers during matches broadcast live on Saudi TV, rolled out mobile mosques on trucks and prayer mats in front of popular cafes where men gathered to watch the games.

Mr Nsaku, a 19-year old, 6ft 2ins player, was signed in 1998 by Portsmouth from Cannes FC but never made it into the troubled 2008 FA Cup winners' first team. His promising career ended last year when he suffered a knee injury.

Born in the Congo, Mr. Nsaku returned last year to Cannes in southern France where he is believed to have converted to Islam and become a believer in its violent jihadist strand under the influence of 33-year old Jérémie-Louis Sidney, the suspected leader of a Salfist group who was killed on Saturday in a shoot-out with French police in Strasbourg. At least three French policemen were injured in the shoot-out that erupted after Mr. Sidney opened fire.

Several of the arrested young men were believed to have recently travelled to Syria to make contact with jihadist fighting the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Several had also been convicted in the past on charges of theft and drugs trafficking.

Police said that many of the men arrested were Salafis who want a return to a life modeled on the 7th century period of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. They said the men, who were of white French, North and Central African and West Indian origin from poor- multi-racial neighbourhoods in France, had made wills and had maintained a list of Jewish targets, including Jewish associations and institutions in Paris that they were planning to attack.

Police said the men had posted their radical views on Facebook and discussed their plans on the telephone. Traces of Mr. Sidney’s DNA were found on the handle of a home-made grenade which was thrown at a Jewish food shop in Sarcelles, near Paris, on September 19.

Police in France have been on alert since March when they shot and killed 23-year old French-Algerian Salafist, Mohammed Merah, after he had killed seven people, including four Jews in Toulouse and Montauban in southern France. It was not clear whether the men arrested this weekend were linked to Mr. Merah, who came from a similar background. The recent arrests, however, idolized him and his killing spree as the "battle of Toulouse".