Iraqi Natl Soccer Team Finally Able to Play in Iraq Again

Story in the BBC News online.

Forced by violence at home to play all its games abroad, the Iraqi national side ended its six-year exile on Friday in the northern city of Irbil.

Fans who had followed the fortunes of their team on TV roared deliriously as they saw the first players jog on to the pitch.

Chants of “Iraq, Iraq” rang through stands which felt, in the blazing afternoon heat, like the rim of an exploding volcano.

“Sport was under sanctions,” yelled Iraq’s most famous football fan, a man from Baghdad known only by one name, Khaddouri. “Now the embargo has been lifted.”

Iraq’s national team is a regional superpower. Traditionally one of the strongest sides in the Middle East, in 2007 they were crowned Asian champions after defeating Saudi Arabia.

The victory coincided with the climax of the sectarian conflict that engulfed Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. Fans celebrated in the streets, briefly defying the threat of bombings that had become a daily norm.

The Palestinian team is one of the weakest in the region. It has developed fitfully, with the movements of its players constantly curtailed by the conflict with Israel.

At the game in Irbil, no Iraqi fans commented on the footballing disparity between the two teams. Instead, they focused on what they saw as a bond with the Palestinians – another Middle Eastern society brutalised by violence.

As the visiting team stepped on to the turf, the stadium loudspeakers urged the crowd to welcome them. The stands obliged, erupting in passionate cries of “Long Live Palestine!”

Parts of Iraq may now be safe enough to host a foreign team but the Palestinians’ home is not. Like the Iraqi side a few years ago, the players must ply their trade abroad.

With few away fans accompanying them, they rely on charitable cheers from the home crowd.

Adjusting the Palestinian scarf around his neck, veteran Iraq fan Khaddouri said: “The Palestinians are our brethren. If they can send their team to Iraq, so can everyone else.”

I’m such a sucker for a story like this. Amazing Iraqi national soccer team survives the brutal reign of Uday Hussein, the invasion and occupation, is forced to play abroad for years yet improves as a regional champion, returns to its homeland, plays a friendly game against another team struggling against harsh realities. I love to see patriotic Iraqis putting a lie to Bush administration brainless propaganda that they all hate each other and that Iraq would splinter apart along religious and ethnic lines. And I love that their first game was against the Palestinian team.

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Filed under arab, iraq soccer

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