Iraq's Escape Is Soccer, But Soccer Can't Escape War

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
January 8, 2007
Pg. 8

By Kirk Semple
BAGHDAD — Anyone wanting to take a measure of the importance of soccer in Iraq needed only to be in the country during the national team’s recent march to the finals of the Asian Games, which were held in Doha, Qatar.
During each match involving the Iraqi squad, work ground to a halt across Iraq as people gathered around televisions. Each victory was celebrated with sustained gunfire that etched the sky with the red streaks of tracer bullets. On Dec. 12, the day Iraq beat the heavily favored South Koreans in the semifinals, at least five people in Baghdad were taken to the hospital with wounds from stray bullets, the police said.
When the final whistle blew on the championship game against Qatar on Dec. 15 — a 1-0 defeat for Iraq — the Iraqi television channel that carried the game cut to a montage of glorious highlights from past victories, seemingly intent on forestalling a total collapse of the national spirit. “You are heroes,” the commentator declared. “Second is a beautiful position.”
Sports fandom is a universal phenomenon, but in Iraq, soccer, the country’s most popular sport, may have greater meaning than usual.
“We Iraqis don’t have much fun,” said Mehdi Hadi Sabi, 36, an auto parts salesman. On a recent afternoon, he was among a cluster of die-hard fans watching the Police Club, one of Iraq’s professional soccer teams, practice in a small stadium here. “This is one of the few recreational things we have left,” Mr. Sabi said. “It’s kind of a catharsis.”
Soccer has become an escape from the uncertainty and violence of life, a source of camaraderie and even a binding force of nationalism in a country riven by sectarianism.
When the national team beat Singapore in October, earning Iraq a spot in the Asia Cup this July, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued a joint statement of congratulations. “Few events bring together Iraqis as a nation like soccer,” it said. “It is a great example of what is possible when Iraqis work together regardless of sect, religion or ethnicity.”
Despite the national team’s successes abroad, the sport at home has been fraught with the same uncertainties as the rest of Iraqi life.
The professional league halted at the 2003 invasion; play was not resumed until late 2004. Though the stadiums remain remarkably free of violence, fear of attacks has cut into attendance. Ticket revenues and government support have declined, and the stadiums and practice facilities are in poor shape. The best players have fled abroad, seeking safer conditions and more lucrative contracts. “All the players would be happy to leave the country,” said Amir Sabah Hussein, 18, a forward on the Police Club. “I wish it weren’t so.”
Violence has also precluded professional league matches in areas of the country where the insurgency is particularly strong, including Anbar Province and the area north of Baghdad known as the Sunni Triangle. Teams from several violent, troubled cities have either folded or moved: the Samarra team, for instance, has relocated to Baghdad, and Mosul plays in Erbil, according to Tareq Ahmed, the acting director of the Iraq Football Association.
Amateur and school leagues have also been crippled, with many teams no longer traveling outside their neighborhoods to play because of fears of attack.
In recent months, athletes and sports officials have been shot and kidnapped. In November, Hudaib Mejhool, director of the professional Students Club, was kidnapped by gunmen while driving to work. His body turned up in the morgue. Ghanim Ghudayer, a member of the Air Force Club and the Iraqi Olympic team, was kidnapped in September.
The Police Club, which is in the soccer association’s premier league and is one of the country’s oldest teams, practices on a field scorched yellow by the sun, and the stands have fallen into disrepair. The team has not played an official league game there for two years because it is too vulnerable to attack, team officials said. During a practice in early December, a bullet sailed past the head of a player; the whole team dropped flat on the ground. It was unclear whether the bullet was a stray or from a sniper. The practice was cut short; memories were still fresh of a player with the Zawra Club who was killed by a stray bullet during practice earlier in the year.
The premier league’s season was supposed to begin Nov. 24, but was postponed twice because of security concerns. The league’s northern and southern divisions started play in November, but the season is still suspended for the teams based in Baghdad. As to when they will begin play, Ahmed Abbas, the general secretary of the Iraqi Football Association, said, “God only knows.”
The possibility that the season may evaporate has crippled the Police Club’s morale. “They’re training aimlessly,” Muhammad Shakir, the team’s coach, said during a recent practice. “They don’t know what they’re doing this for.”
The players were phlegmatically warming up by kicking around balls and stretching. “Before, we were coming to work with our hearts and minds,” the coach continued. “Now we are just coming with our minds.”
Hashim Ridah, 27, a stocky forward and one of the league’s most prolific scorers, said that if the season never began, he might seek a spot on the team in Karbala, his hometown. He said he could not afford to lose another year. “The time of the player is limited,” he said.
The fans, too, are distraught. “I may fall into a depression if there is no season,” said Mr. Sabi, the auto parts dealer. “It’s hard to imagine Iraq without a football season, and a season without the Police Club.” But Mr. Sabi and his buddies continue to turn out for most practices.
“My family has tried to prohibit me from coming here because I have diabetes, but I don’t care,” said Wasim Mohsin, 50, a rotund sheep vendor and one of the Police Club’s stalwart fans. “I watch the clock, and when it strikes two o’clock, I just leave the house and go to the club.” Once, he said, he even abandoned a sick daughter at a hospital to catch a game.
But there may be no more devoted a Police Club fan than Khalil Khalaf, 23, a deaf house painter. After a Police Club loss to a team from Najaf last season, Mr. Khalaf, a wiry blade of a man, angrily hurled himself over a retaining fence, sprinted across the playing field and tackled a Najaf player. Mr. Khalaf was pounced on by other Najaf players and a police officer, who beat him with a stick. His friends pulled him to safety.
To explain what the team meant to him, Mr. Khalaf pounded his chest with his fist, then repeatedly dragged an index finger from the corner of his eye down his cheek. Mr. Mohsin translated: “He says, ‘The team is in my heart, and sometimes I cry for them.’ ”
His message conveyed, Mr. Khalaf clenched his fists into thumbs-up signs and bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. He looked like the happiest man in Iraq.
Khalid al-Ansary and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting from Baghdad.