How football is uniting Iraq
The "Lions of Mesopotamia" - The Iraq team have their photos taken before an Asian Cup game
By TIM SPANTON
July 27, 2007
IN A country ripped apart by violence it is the one thing that seems to unite them – Football.
Amazingly, Iraq’s national football team, nicknamed the Lions of Mesopotamia, have reached the final of the Asian Cup.
Yet even more surprising than their unexpected success on the pitch is the way in which it has united the country’s three main warring factions — the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.
People whose only common ground used to be mutual hatred are now gathering together to watch their team on flickering TV screens powered by private generators to beat Iraq’s frequent blackouts.
Jorvan Vieira ... Iraq's manager
Iraq meet three-times winners Saudi Arabia in Sunday’s final in Indonesian capital Jakarta.
The team used to be run by Saddam Hussein’s football-mad son Uday.
Unfortunately, he was mad in other ways too. Players who failed to perform to his expectations were tortured.
Once the squad were made to play a game with a concrete football.
Players were beaten and even dragged behind a car.
Haiydar Adnan, a 29-year-old Shia fan, said: “Iraqi footballers used to play because they were afraid of Uday but now they play out of pride. They play for their country.
“The Iraqi team is the only thing uniting us now. When the team win a game, the people in Karkh, who are Sunnis, get happy and the people in Rusafa, who are Shias, get happy.
“I hope the politicians will look at these simple football players who manage to unite the Iraqi people and learn from them.”
The team’s best previous finish in the Asian Cup was fourth in 1976.
This time round they were expected to go out in the early stages after the squad was riven by sectarian divisions.
Then, just two months before the competition kicked off, the Iraq football federation had a stroke of genius — it hired a Brazilian as manager.
Jorvan Vieira, 54, told his players: “I don’t know whether each of you is Sunni or Shia or Kurdish — and I don’t want to know.”
The players, all of whom have lost close relatives in the violence that has engulfed Iraq, united on the pitch.
The fans responded back home and their voices are now urging political leaders to follow the players’ example and put their differences behind them.
Abdul-Rahman Abdul-Hassan, a 40-year-old Shia in the Education ministry, joined three old Sunni friends to watch Iraq’s 2-0 quarter-final win over one of the joint hosts, Vietnam.
“It’s the first time I have seen my friends in two years,” said the dad-of-three, who now lives in a solely Shia area of north Baghdad.
“We kissed and hugged one another and recalled our days when we played together for a local team.”
Salim Alwan, a 30-year-old Sunni, drove 30 minutes to a Shia area to watch the same game with former pals he usually only speaks to on the phone.
Iraqi team celebrate a goal
He said: “I spent the night there then came back the next day after they accompanied me with their car for my safety.”
At the same time in largely Shia Basra, which is under British Army control, Iraqis from all backgrounds watched the game in a casino.
Marwan Ahmed, a 23-year-old Sunni tailor, said: “It was the most beautiful day in Iraq over the past four years.
“All the people at the casino congratulated one another, even those who were strangers.
“I felt like this team helped clean our hearts from hatred as we were all thinking only of Iraq and nothing else.”
The Iraqi underdogs went on to beat fancied South Korea 4-3 on penalties in Wednesday’s semi-final.
Sadly, celebrations were marred by violence — deliberate and accidental. Two suicide bombers killed at least 50 revellers in separate attacks in Baghdad.
The attacks are thought to have been by hardline Sunnis who oppose football because players dress “immodestly” in shorts.
Three more people died and at least 17 were wounded by stray bullets fired in celebration.
But manager Jorvan Vieira stresses the positives of what his players have overcome.
He said: “I don’t have one person who hasn’t lost someone from their family because of this war.
“But they never mix politics with the team — they never talk about it.
“My assistant coach was living in Baghdad but one day he was driving his car and was stopped.
“They stole his car and said, ‘If you don’t go, we will kill you.’ He had to leave Baghdad. It’s crazy.”
The team trained and played their warm-up matches in neighbouring Jordan. “Some of the players, if they go back to Iraq, they are going to be killed,” said Jorvan, who was raised a Roman Catholic but converted to Islam while coaching in Morocco.
“But for now everyone is happy and we have reason to be happy because our latest victory has brought us to the final.
“We deserved that. My boys have worked very hard.”
Even if the team lose to favourites Saudi Arabia on Sunday, they have already created history.
Goalkeeper Noor Sabri, 23, who plays his club football in Iran, said: “Four days before we came to the finals my wife’s brother was killed.
“We have to struggle. We know we are struggling inside Iraq and we are struggling to do our best on the playing field.
“It is a very modest thing we can give to our people but we have to show them we are sharing all what we are achieving here. This is historic for football in our country.”
The stepmother of Hawar Mohammed, a 24-year-old Kurdish midfielder, was also killed shortly before the tournament.
“Everyone knows the current circumstances in Iraq,” he said sadly.
“We’ve managed to unify the Iraqi people when we win.
“Even when a curfew was imposed by the authorities, Iraqis went out on the streets and in cafes to watch the matches.
“All of these things are important for us and encourage us to achieve and bring happiness to our people.”
Politicians are eager to congratulate the players.
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, told the team: “You flew high the Iraqi flag. You created happiness with the participation of all Iraqis.”
And President Jalal Talabani said the team’s victories are “a source of pride for Iraqis of all sects”.
So, whatever the result on Sunday’s final, the team’s goal would have been achieved.
IRAQ'S RESULTS IN THE ASIAN CUP
Thailand 1-1 Iraq
Suksomkit 6 (pen)..........Mahmoud 32
Iraq 3-1 Australia
Akram 23................Viduka 47
Oman 0-0 Iraq
Group A Final standings
Iraq 2-0 Vietnam
Iraq 0-0 South Korea
(After Extra Time, Iraq win 4-3 on penalties)
Iraq VS Saudi Arabia