To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, art can be a mirror to reflect reality or a hammer with which to shape it. The same could be said of sport. For a brief moment in July, Iraq was one: no Sunnis or Shiites, Arabs or Kurds, Christians or Muslims. United in their hopes of soccer glory, it was a moment that encapsulated the potential of sport to be a force for good – the Brechtian hammer. Huddled around their television sets, millions of Iraqis excitedly watched their national team defeat Saudi Arabia in the championship game of the Asian Cup of soccer. Together, Iraqis rejoiced. The dangerous and chaotic streets of Baghdad shed their danger, but none of their chaos. Cars clogged the roads, horns beeped in celebration and thousands of fans took to the streets waving the Iraqi flag, their troubled lives temporarily eased by a burst of national pride. As the team’s coach exclaimed, “When the football team is playing, there is no bombing in Iraq.”
For a country bitterly divided by politics, ethnicity and religion, Iraq’s national soccer team is no mirror of the state of the nation. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds make up the fifteen-man squad. They eat, train and play together. Undivided in their pursuit of sporting excellence, the patriotism and commitment that binds the team together stands in marked contrast to the sectarian violence now tearing their country apart.
They entered the Asian Cup as underdogs. Few soccer pundits expected them to do well. Under funded, under pressure and under occupation, the players’ desire to bring joy to a joyless nation propelled them through the opening rounds of the tournament. A 3-1 win over the heavily favoured Australians convinced the team that a historic, politically salient victory was possible. Suspense gripped the nation as the team squeaked by Korea in a penalty shootout to settle their semi-final match. And when Younis Mahmoud scored the only goal in a tightly played final, a patriotic exuberance overtook the country.
Given the team’s ethnic and religious make-up, the president of the Iraqi football federation believes that soccer could play a major role in guiding the nation towards a more positive future. Hussein Saeed told reporters, “We want to give a good example for the politicians and for the people that when we are united and working together we can win against all the difficulties we face.”
“Football,” Saeed continued, “is sending a good message to all the people about friendship and everything else.” To the political class, Saeed offered this: “Iraqis are united under two things: one is the Iraqi flag and the other is the Iraqi football team.”
The conditions under which the team was victorious made their success all the more remarkable. Yet the celebrations were short-lived. Car bombs rocked downtown Baghdad mere hours after the victory – the gritty return to politics-as-usual smothering a moment of national unity and pride. And, although the moment passed as quickly as it had arrived, it was a reminder of what once was, and a promise of what could be. As if channeling a sporting Brecht, thirty-year-old fan Nuri Najjar told Reuters, “I am nearly crying for joy. Iraq’s victory with this harmonious team represents the way we should all live together.”
This article appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Capitalism vs the Earth).