Iraq finds unity on the global soccer field

Even on the hottest summer afternoons, when men doze in doorways and children cry from heat rashes, the dusty tracts along the Tigris and the littered wastelands in poor neighborhoods are a welter of activity as young men gather for soccer, the one remain

Iraq finds unity on the global soccer field

Iraq is soccer crazy, and despite mortars, bombings and shootings aimed at amateur teams in Baghdad and Ramadi in western Iraq, it remains the national game. While the young play, older men and children gather to watch, and women walking by steal glances from under their long black veils.

Excitement reached new heights this week at the Asian Cup, when the Iraqi team advanced to the quarterfinals after beating Australia and tying its matches with games against Thailand and the Sultanate of Oman. The team plays its first quarterfinal game Saturday against Vietnam.

One of the reporters for this article heard a barrage of bullets Tuesday afternoon from the Iraqi Army checkpoint on his street; fearful that a gunfight had started, he whisked his children to the innermost room of the house. After 15 minutes the shooting stopped, and he tentatively emerged.

"Iraq won! Iraq won!" one soldier shouted in jubilation to anyone who would listen.

Another replied, "They play the best football," he said, brandishing his AK-47 rifle.

For Iraqis the soccer team's success is a little of the old days, a time before the sectarianism that now tears the country apart. It is a rare harbinger of hope and offers a moment of pride. If the team, which includes Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds, can play together, then maybe the country can bridge the bloody hatreds that have ravaged so many communities here.

"I think that the Iraqi team is the only thing that is uniting us now," said Haiydar Adnan, 29, a Shiite who looked unhappy about the current situation. "When the Iraqi team wins a game, the people in Karkh, who are Sunnis, get happy. The people in Rusafa, who are Shiites, get happy."

"The team includes all the Iraqi sects, but they are all Iraqis and they are our brothers," Adnan said. "I hope that the Iraqi politicians would look at these simple football players who managed to unite the Iraqi people and learn from them."

Until the 22-man Iraqi team went to the most recent round in the Asian Cup, the coach was a Sunni. Now, the coach is Brazilian.

Not only does the team bring together ethnic and sectarian groups, it also plays free of the abuse it suffered under the son of President Saddam Hussein, Uday Hussein, who was the head of the football federation. It signals that Iraqis can win out of skill, not out of fear.

"In the past, the Iraqi players used to play because they were afraid of Uday, the son of Saddam, but now they play out of pride, they play for their country," Adnan said.

Said Nawfal Hameed, who owns an electric appliance shop: "During the two hours of game time, I live in another world, I forget about the car bombs and feel human again, and what is more beautiful is that the team includes all sects, they are all Iraqis to us and they make me feel that we are united again."

Hameed, now in his 40s, has been a football fan from his youngest days and remembered going to the stadium to support his favorite team.

"We used to go hours ahead of time and take all the food and water we need. We even became good friends with other football fans, friendships that have lasted until now."

It is not so easy now to watch the national team play a game. In Baghdad electricity is down to an hour or two a day, so watching at home, unless the family has access to a generator, is not an option.

People used to go to cafés where free tea and soft drinks were handed out by proprietors. Now many are afraid to go because of car bombs and mortars.

But football is a strong draw.

"We still go to cafés to watch the football games, especially when there is no electricity," said Abbas Abu Khudair, a man who repairs flat tires.

Still, he said it was a problem when the games were held at night. "Then the cafés are closed and especially if the Iraqi team is playing, we have to find fuel to run the generator, there is no question about this."

Abu Hussain, a 52-year-old Shiite, said, "I don't like football, but I like to watch the Iraqi football team play, because they represent Iraq. I feel proud when I see the beautiful Iraqi flag rising in another country."

International Herald Tribune

Güncelleme Tarihi: 21 Temmuz 2007, 08:32