Football Succeeds Where Politics Fails

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi football victory seems to have united Iraqis across the country where politicians only divide it.

The Iraqi football team defeated South Korea 4-3 in Malaysia Wednesday to gain entrance into the finals of the Asian Cup. That set off a wave of celebrations across the capital and most of the country.

Tens of thousands of overjoyed Iraqis swarmed the streets of Baghdad, waving Iraqi flags and firing into the air to celebrate. Not even two car bombs that killed more than 50 people dampened all of the enthusiasm.

The football team is one of the last remaining symbols of national unity, because it includes mixed sects and ethnicities — a rarity under an occupation that has fractured the country along ethnic lines and along sects within Islam.

For a brief time it appeared that the people of Iraq suddenly had suddenly forgotten those differences.

“This is a punch that came right in the nose of anyone who says we are divided,” Mahmood Farhan of the Iraqi Journalists League in Baghdad told IPS. “Look how we swept off the dirt of occupation politics and, hand in hand, won each other’s love.”

Iraqi security forces were taken off guard by the spontaneous burst of celebrations, and for a brief time the capital appeared the old, crowded, noisy Baghdad.

“Our hearts beat together, and let the occupiers go to hell,” shouted a young man on a bicycle on the streets of the Sadr City area of the capital. Many people gathered around the IPS correspondent when they figured their celebrations were being reported to the outside world.

A man who referred to himself as Hussein who was visiting Baghdad from Basra, told IPS amidst the celebrating crowd in Sadr City: “Iraq only, no Shias, no Sunnis and no Kurds. Down with divisions. Down with sectarian attitudes.”

Iraqis also crowded the streets of Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. Around the country people sang the song “Victory for Baghdad”, composed by a group of non-Iraqi Arab singers ten years before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In the semi-autonomous northern region Kurdistan people who now came across as Iraqis and not just Kurds waved Iraqi flags in a rare display of national unity. Kurds normally view the Iraqi flag as an Arab symbol, and instead fly the Kurdish flag.

Iraqis outside the country also celebrated the victory.

“Dozens of Iraqis have telephoned me to express their happiness and unity,” Maki al-Nazzal, an Iraqi businessman in Amman told IPS on telephone. “Arabs from Jordan and the Gulf countries who are in Amman celebrated the winning as if it were their own.

“It seems that sports achieved the unity of Iraqis and Arabs that politics has managed to ruin,” added Nazzal. “Two hours of football was far more fruitful than four years of politics. Do not ask me whether this unity will last long.”

The same day the two car bombs went off amidst the throngs of cheering Iraqis. The blasts came half an hour apart in different areas of Baghdad. The killings did not end the celebrations elsewhere.

“This is a game that Iraq won, and I hope Bush won’t now say, look, I made them win that match,” a member of the Iraqi Olympics Federation in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS.

“He did it once and we hated him even more for that because it was our boys who won despite the miserable support we are getting from the Americans and our government,” he said. He was referring to the claim by U.S. President George W. Bush in August 2004 that the Iraqi football success in the Olympics was proof that the U.S.-led occupation was benefiting Iraq.

At that time, Iraqi football star Salih Sadir told reporters, “Iraq as a team doesn’t want Mr. Bush to use us (in an ad) for the presidential campaign…we don’t wish for the presence of the Americans in our country. We want them to go away.”

Iraq’s football coach Adnan Hamad Majeed had then said: “(My problems) are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything. The American Army has killed so many people in Iraq.”

On Sunday Iraq plays Saudi Arabia in the finals.

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)