Iraqi soccer tournament provides a joyous outlet

Associated Press
Published December 16, 2007

BAGHDAD - For one crisp December day, the screaming in this city had nothing to do with the burdens of more than four years of war. It had everything to do with the joy of watching a soccer ball hit the back of a net.

More than 6,000 fans crowded the terraces of al-Shaab stadium in central Baghdad on Saturday to support two of the city's best-known clubs - the Air Force and Police - in the top national league. The 2007-08 soccer season for top tier teams began Nov. 26 with 12 clubs competing in three geographical groups.

Young boys atop fathers' shoulders shouted, voices going hoarse chanting for their team and taunting rival players.

"Iraqis have proven that they love each other and that they love life by willing to make this tournament successful," said Kareem Farhan, the Police coach. "We are proving to the world that the people and athletes of this bleeding country are determined to lead a normal life."

In the past 4 1/2 years, dozens of players and coaches have been assassinated or abducted by gangs. The national team doesn't train in Iraq and has not played a home game in more than a decade.

But Iraqis remain passionate about soccer, with the country's pride bolstered in July when the national team won the Asian Cup for the first time.

The Police, by the way, won the match.

Fast facts

11 killed in attacks

Bomb blasts, ambushes and gunfights across Iraq left 11 people dead on Saturday, including four members of American-backed security patrols charged with rooting out insurgents.

The security patrols, mostly Sunni groups known as "Awakening Councils," have been credited with helping to drive down violence. But their work with the Americans has put them in the crosshairs of al-Qaida in Iraq, a homegrown extremist group that American intelligence agencies believe is led by foreigners.

New York Times