Praying, Not Playing

DAMASCUS — In the struggle now just to stay alive, everyone has forgotten that Iraq has lost, among other things, its tradition in sports. Some of its best sportsmen are now refugees.

“No one seems to care about us,” 20-year-old footballer Ali Rubai’i told IPS. Ali fled Iraq with his family to Syria like countless other young Iraqis. The young from Iraq, born after 1980, have grown up amidst three major wars, 13 years of strangling economic sanctions, and now five years of occupation.

Through all this some still manage to keep up with sports. But it has begun to seem to many others like an indulgence.

“I was one of the best soccer players in Anbar province, and my coach expected the brightest future for me,” Ayid Humood from Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, told IPS in Damascus. “I struggled to keep my training together with my work as a construction labourer, but then I had to give up playing because work brought survival for the family.”

“Despite the Iraq-Iran war of the eighties, and the UN sanctions later, there was some support for sports and youth in Iraq,” a senior member of the Iraqi Olympics Committee told IPS on condition of anonymity on telephone from Baghdad. “Iraq produced many Olympic teams and stars because of the organised system that was founded in the early days of the Iraqi state. It got worse during the UN sanctions, and then the very worst came with the U.S. occupation in 2003.”

“Most of our stadiums and playing grounds have been converted into U.S. and Iraqi military bases,” Waleed Khalid of the Ramadi Sports Club who fled to Damascus with his family told IPS. “Our Ramadi stadium is now used as a U.S. military base, and we were deprived of playing official games. Gradually we stopped training, given the chaos brought by the U.S. military operations in our city.”

Khalid added, “I do not think there will be any future for any Ramadi player any more.”

In Fallujah a football stadium was turned into a graveyard through the April 2004 U.S. siege when people could not find any other place to bury their dead. According to doctors at Fallujah General Hospital IPS interviewed after that siege, 736 people were killed, more than 60 percent of them civilians. The football stadium is now known as the Fallujah Martyrs Graveyard.

The al-Sumood stadium in Fallujah was closed down for conversion into a private hospital, a general hospital and a market.

Some of the damage has been done by Iraqis themselves.

“A country that is led by clerics who think sports are forbidden could never have any progress,” Adil Hamza, a sports teacher at a Baghdad high school who fled to Syria told IPS. “Our sports stars are all abroad now looking for their personal future. Soccer clubs in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Iran signed contracts with the best Iraqi soccer players and coaches, while most Iraqi clubs cannot afford to pay the simplest salaries to their players.”

Many religious leaders in Iraq now forbid sports, and even the wearing of shorts.

The al-Karkh Club in western Baghdad was closed down when militias began killing all the young men they could find in early 2006. “I came to Syria looking for a chance to play after our club was closed,” Huthayfa, who was a member of the club told IPS. “Now I am going back to Fallujah where my family fled to, I have given up hope of any future in soccer.”

Still, not everyone has. Syrian authorities have set aside a soccer stadium in Baghdad for Iraqi youth. The al-Nidhal stadium draws hundreds of Iraqi youngsters.

“It was so generous of our Syrian brothers to gift us such a good place,” said Ibrahim Mahmood. “But our problem is much bigger than just finding a place for practice. We need to make our future as soccer players, and that needs huge assets and international support.”

(*Maki al-Nazzal, our correspondent in Syria, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported from the region for more than four years.)