Football team-mates shocked by reports of players' detention  

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The Independent Online

When Tipton United last took to the pitch in their local park, few in the West Midlands Sunday League side would have believed that, months later, three of the players would be in custody suspected of being al-Qa'ida fighters.

That, however, was the truth facing the team last night as evidence emerged of the disturbing links between their star striker, Asif Iqbal, 20, who is being held in Camp X-Ray on Cuba, and his 20-year-old team-mate, Ruhal Ahmed, who was being held in Afghanistan. Another player, 24-year old central defender Shafiq Rasul, is also being held on Cuba.

The trio, who live within half a mile of each other in the town of Tipton, one of Britain's most impoverished districts to the west of Birmingham, all attended the same secondary school and two of them – Mr Iqbal and Mr Ahmed – have convictions for a violent gang attack on an innocent bystander.

As fears gathered that a fundamentalist Islamic group may have been active at the heart of Tipton's close-knit Muslim community, it all seemed a long way from the innocent activities on the football pitch

Ala Uddin, President of Tipton United and a friend of all three men, said: "As far as I'm concerned these are three safe guys who I used to play football with. I find it astonishing that they are under arrest, suspected of being terrorists.''

Tipton United play once every fortnight in the Hapal League, an Asian Sunday competition involving about 30 teams from the West Midlands. The club's home ground is Victoria Park – a recreation ground directly opposite the Rasul family home.

Mr Uddin said: "We have been playing there since we were kids. Shafiq was a bit older but he made a good defender. Ruhal also played but it was Asif who was our star striker – he is very quick. The only trouble is we weren't very good, we only won one game and we finished bottom of the league last time.''

The three men being held by American forces all attended Alexandra High School and Sixth Form Centre in Tipton.

Speaking before the Foreign Office had confirmed last night that Mr Ahmed was among the detainees, headteacher Ian Binnie said: "Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul were pupils of the school. Staff who remember them describe them as average pupils. They were involved in the occasional scrape but nothing serious. There was obviously no indication at the time of any extreme fundamentalist views.''

There were indications last night, however, that Iqbal and Ahmed were more capable of violence than was thought.

The two men were part of a gang of five that was convicted for its part in the running gang battle four years ago in Dudley town centre that left a bystander scarred.

Mr Iqbal, who a family friend said had "gone off the rails'' before he left for Pakistan last year, admitted a charge of violent disorder at Wolverhampton Crown Court in May 1999. Mr Ahmed pleaded guilty to causing actual bodily harm.

The two men were ordered to do 150 hours of community service and pay £500 compensation each to their victim Rahim Rashid, then 16, who was attacked with a bottle and a hammer.

The court was told Mr Rashid was kicked in the head and left coughing blood after being set upon by the defendants. Recorder Philip Parker, sentencing the gang, described the attack as a "thoroughly disgraceful incident''.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Rashid said he had forgiven his attackers and praised Iqbal for being in Afghanistan.

He said: "He has gone over there to do a good job. He's a real man, I have nothing against him.''