Iraq is one nation on the pitch only

Iraqi clubs may now compete internationally again, reviving the hopes of this young team.
By Bram Vermeulen in Baghdad

The coach of Iraq's youth football team recommends politicians follow his players' example. "Sunni or Shia, all that counts here is quality."

US Black Hawk and Apache helicopters swarmed high above the heads of Iraq's national youth team's footballers - ready for a shooting in an adjacent district. They shot flares that left long white plumes of smoke in the cloudless sky. The players were unimpressed by the fireworks, which they can witness every day. All that mattered today was that their pace was light, lighter than it had been in months.

On this yellow field in the Shaab stadium in Baghdad, they have continued doing their sit-ups, practised keeping the ball in the air and run around the pitch since November. For months, their efforts were as exhausting as they were pointless, because even football was held hostage by politics. Politics that often make life in Iraq outside the stadium hopeless.

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A power struggle between the national football association and government sports administrators got so out of hand the world football association FIFA decided to exclude Iraq, the unexpected champion of the 2007 Asia Cup, from participation in any international tournaments. "That is what you get when our first rule is broken: no politics on the field," grumbled Hassan Ahmed, the national youth team's coach. Last week, FIFA reversed its decision. Iraqi clubs may now compete internationally again and the hopes of this young team were revived.

Do the impossible

The bickering may seem insignificant compared to the major issues facing this country: the formation of a government in a period of political uncertainty, following the narrow victory of former prime minister Iyad Allawi in the recent parliamentary elections; the forthcoming withdrawal of US troops; and the division of oil revenues.

But in Iraq, like in many countries around the world, football is a significant part of life. And the youth players and their coach are convinced they hold the key to the new Iraq. "Politicians can learn from us, not the other way around," Ahmed said. According to the coach, the football field is the only place in the country where Iraqi Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and Christians can do the impossible: work together and form a coalition. This is exactly what politicians will have to do following the March 7 parliamentary election.

But even football managers have difficulty understanding the formula. Last November, armed men drove up to the Iraqi football association's headquarters in armoured cars and entered by force. They took over on behalf of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, a sports management body that was under supervision of the then predominantly Shiite government.

The reasons for the coup are still being debated. The association is led by a Sunni, the once popular striker Hussein Saeed. Some considered him damaged goods because he had previously served on the board under Uday Hussein, Saddam's oldest son. During his father's dictatorship, Uday ruled over Iraqi football like a king. He decided who played, and who was punished after disappointing results.

Current chairman Saeed bore witness to this for years, making him an accomplice, some say. "He couldn't help it, the only one who had a say was Uday," others counter, including sports reporter Adnan Zafta.

Sick and tired of the labels

Zafta thinks Saeed's biggest problem was that he chose to move to Jordan after the US invasion in 2003. He lived in self-imposed exile out of fear of being killed the way other sports managers in Iraq had been. "Many athletes wondered why he was too afraid to be in Iraq, while they had no choice but to face the dangers."

Another reason Saeed is controversial is that he refused to hold elections for the board of the football association. He considered this too dangerous. But that claim was hardly tenable after the country went to the polls five times over the last five years. The association has now promised elections for April. The coup has been reversed and FIFA has accepted Iraq into its ranks again.

"It is like politics in this country," said 18-year-old defender Ebrahim Sabri as he was stretching in the gym. "They care about power and about money, when what they should really care about is us, the players. Us the people." When asked whether he was Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish, Sabri refused to identify himself as any of the three. "I am a Muslim," he said. "The rest is irrelevant."

Similar remarks can be heard on the streets of Baghdad these days. After seven years of bloody sectarian violence, Iraqis are sick and tired of the labels. The divide and rule policies are a legacy of colonial times and revived after the fall of Saddam, with disastrous consequences. This has made the football field an enclave, the one place where Iraq is one as a nation.

The Iraqis' love for football is indomitable. Even the dozens of extremist groups that operate in the country seem to respect that. While other public places are the continuous target of violent attacks, football fields have been left untouched by this destructive violence.

"One day, militias walked onto the pitch demanding I put a player from their neighbourhood in the line-up," coach Ahmed said. "I told them I was having none of it. I don't care who or what you are, Sunni, Shiite, Kurd or Christian. On the field, only quality matters. Politicians divide. We unite."

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