Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 13:18 UK

Iraq united behind football stars

A game of football in Baghdad - despite sand storm (Photo: Hugh Sykes/BBC)
Nothing can dampen the Iraqi soccer obsession, neither violence nor sandstorms

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News

When is a one-nil defeat a victory? When Iraq play Spain.

Spain beat Iraq in the qualifying round of the Confederations Cup in South Africa in June, scoring the only goal of the game. But the Iraqi fans were smiling.

In Bloemfontein and Johannesburg, the Iraqi national team had its own wildly enthusiastic "barmy army" of followers.

They were mostly expatriates ("not exiles," one of them pointed out firmly) - fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, with Iraqi names but homes in the US, Canada and the Gulf states.

Iraqi fan in South Africa (Photo: Hugh/Sykes)
Many fans at international competitions have never visited Iraq

The children had never been to the country where their parents were born. But they shouted "Iraq! Iraq! Iraq!" and waved the red, white and black national flag, with its inscription "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great).

One flag flapped continuously above a small group of Iraqi fans, held up over their heads by a great bunch of helium-filled balloons.

Under Saddam Hussein, and his son - Sports Minister Uday Hussein - Iraqi footballers were routinely humiliated and tortured when they lost.

But now a new national team has evolved - and it came to international attention when Iraq won the Asian Cup in 2007.

Fond memories

Football in Iraq is an intense national passion. During the World Cup in 2006, TVs were permanently tuned to the football - power cuts permitting.

One day I visited Cafe Arabia in Baghdad. It was more of a youth club than a cafe, with table-tennis and snooker - and a poster of Ronaldinho on the wall, wearing his Barcelona strip.

In the middle of the Portugal-Mexico game, the TV went blank. So I lined up some of the boys and asked them in turn who they supported: France, Argentina, Brazil, Brazil, England, Argentina, England, Brazil, Brazil, Brazil, Brazil.

Hugh Sykes with Iraqi football fans at Cafe Arabia, Baghdad
Hugh Sykes with Iraqi football fans at Cafe Arabia, Baghdad

In Iraq during the World Cup, I also met Alla, a Baghdad civil servant and a Liverpool fan.

He told me: "England have two super-stars - David Beckham and Steven Gerrard. But it's hard for England to beat Brazil - they are not fit enough."

Another time, in a cafe in Basra in 2003, 10-year-old Moatez's eyes brightened with delight when I told him I lived near the Arsenal stadium in London.

"Oh!" he sighed. "Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, David Seaman!" And as he said the name of the former Arsenal keeper, Moatez mimed a goalie's dive from his chair.

Back in Baghdad, at the height of the violence in 2007, there was a local cup final on a dusty pitch down by the Tigris river.

There were about 50 spectators, most of them children. I asked them about their lives.

"We're tired, exhausted," they said. "We come here on our bikes, afraid of explosions on the way."

National symbol

Had they seen any explosions? Yes.

Iraq captain Nashat Akram (Photo: Hugh Sykes/BBC)

We're playing just for the people, for Iraq
Nashat Akram
Iraq captain

"There was a bomb right next to my house," one boy told me.

"Ten or eleven people were killed. I watched my father carry dead bodies away."

In South Africa this June, the Iraqi side did not make it to the semi-finals.

"That's football," their captain Nashat Akram told me.

He added: "But I hope my fans in Iraq are feeling happy because this is the first time we've played in the Confederations Cup - a very high level.

"And I hope in the future that we'll do well and help our people. We're playing just for the people, for Iraq."

The importance of the Iraqi national team as a symbol of national unity cannot be overstated.

Watching the stars playing in Jordan earlier this year, an Iraqi sports reporter, Haider Abdali, told me the hopes of his homeland were projected onto the football team.

"In the past, and now," he said, "there is no difference between Iraqis because Iraqis love each other and live together - from a long time.

"So now, and in the future, this team will be a picture for all Iraq because the team is mixed from all Iraq. There is no difference between us.

"It was people from outside who came and did this to us to divide us, and they succeeded; but now Iraqis wake up and return to their lives and love each other."

On election day in January 2005, at New Baghdad police station, policemen in uniform were playing football in their lunch break.

When the ball went into touch, a little girl called Raba went and fetched it - sometimes scraping mud off it before throwing it to one of the men.

Raba was then seven years old. Her father was a policeman at New Baghdad.

But he wasn't there playing football anymore. Three days earlier, he'd been shot dead by an insurgent.

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