Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Football Victories Give New Hope

Tired of seeing their country torn apart by war, Iraqis view Olympic success with pride.
By Awadh al-Taiee

Mohammed Ghalib, a 29-year-old engineer, was standing outside his home in the al-Amal district of Baghdad, discussing the news with his friend and neighbour Hussein Hameed.

"Fighting everywhere – two bombs fell near our factory today," Ghalib said angrily. "Is that any way to live? Bombing all the time when you go to work, or you're at home. Fighting in Sadr City [a Baghdad district], fighting in Najaf. Where should we go?"

But his friend Hameed replied, "Put all that aside! Tell me – when’s the football match?"

"Nine-thirty this evening," said Ghaleb, suddenly brightening.

For three brief weeks, the stunning performance of Iraq's Olympic football team was a sweet distraction for Iraqis obsessed with the lack of security in their country.

On August 12, the night Ghaleb and Hameed had their conversation, Iraq won the first of three stunning upset victories when they inflicted a 4-2 defeat on this year’s European Championship runners-up Portugal.

When the final whistle was blown, Ghaleb dashed out into the streets with his arms raised high in victory, as bursts of celebratory tracer fire streamed up into the sky.

"Our people love sport, especially football," he told IWPR. "The victory made us forget the deteriorating security conditions, the bombings, and the fighting in Najaf, as though we were living a normal and quiet life like before.

"I hope this victory and joy reflects on all walks of our life and unifies efforts to build our country."

Iraq's Olympic run - which ended on August 27 when a 1-0 defeat to Italy left them just shy of a bronze medal - was their best-ever performance in international football.

Moreover, it appeared to unify a fractured nation, with fans at the stadium carrying banners that combined the flags of Iraq and Kurdistan.

"Baghdad is victorious," chanted the crowds after winning each match.

"We are all Iraqis - Arabs, Kurds and Christians," gushed one supporter to a television crew reporting the event.

"The victory came at just the right time – all sects and all religious and political groups are unified," said 20-year-old computer programmer Hisham Kareem.

Some Iraqis are hoping that football will offer alternative to violence. Suad Hussein, 55, rebuked her two grandsons who were fighting over a toy pistol in their local grocery store.

"In the streets there's killing, bombs, and wars, and you are fighting over a pistol," she scolded them.

To a passer-by, she said, "I want them to be like our national team who have made us proud…. We want to be happy about victories we achieve by rebuilding everything that has been destroyed in our country."

Instead of a toy pistol, she bought the boys a football.

Awadh al-Taiee is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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