Iraq continue to move in right direction amid unrest

Iraq's Under 17 players have spent a majority of their lives effectively at war but those have come before them have had success on the pitch, writes Ian Hawkey.

Players such as Iraq midfielder Humam Tareq proved his country’s mettle on the pitch when his Under 20 team knocked off England, Spain and Portugal but fell just short of the Fifa Under 20 World Cup final last July in Istanbul. Ozan Kose / AFP
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Sport often gets described as a great force for good, a means to thaw frozen diplomatic relations, or provide pause for thought in the fiercest battlegrounds. Occasionally, it really is a noble, lasting bridge-builder. Sometimes, it is just a welcome, uplifting distraction in troubled times.

In Iraq, football has been asked to serve all sorts of purposes. Among the most notorious stories that emerged during the era of Saddam Hussein’s government were those concerning his son, Uday, and his interest in the country’s most popular sport.

As head of the Olympic body in Iraq and overseer of the national football team for a period, he would, as witnesses who later left the country reported, organise brutal physical punishments for players deemed guilty of underachievement against opposing sides.

Post-Saddam, Iraqi football has had to overcome other problems.

At the Athens Olympics, the remarkable progress of the men’s team to the semi-finals, with their country in the grip of war, took place against the backdrop of propagandising from the United States, which led the 2003 invasion of the country.

Individuals in that Iraqi team made plain their distaste at being pointed out in American television election campaigns as emblems of the freedom the invasion had supposedly brought. The Iraqi footballers, obliged to train abroad, felt liberated from very little.

Yet they played superbly, and finished just short of a medal.

In doing so, they provided a template to what has been a scarcely credible series of Iraqi football successes since. There was the 2007 triumph for the senior Iraq team at the Asian Cup.

There was the narrow loss for the Under 19s, in the AFC tournament last year. Then, in July, a U20 World Cup in Turkey in which, after helping knock out England in the first phase, Iraq outlasted Spain and Portugal in the competition to go within a lost penalty shoot-out, against Uruguay, of making the final.

All this, while playing fields have been directly affected by unrest.

In February, 18 people, most of them teenagers, were killed by the bombing of a football pitch in Shuala, Baghdad. During the U20 World Cup, several clubs suspended their domestic fixtures after the death of a respected local coach, Mohammed Abbas Al Jabouri, during a raid by anti-terrorist police on the Karbala club.

Footballers cannot, however strong their focus, exist entirely detached from such circumstances.

The players on the U17 squad have spent the majority of their lives in a country effectively at war. They are also the first Iraqis ever to make the finals of the U17 World Cup.

But they are not short of inspiring pathfinders to try to emulate, starting from the Olympians of Athens, the Asian champions of six years ago, and the formidable U20 side in Turkey.

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