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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 19:43 GMT 20:43 UK
Iraq's footballers outplay politicians
By Penny Spiller
BBC News Online

For the Iraqi national football team, it was pretty much a walk in the park.

Iraqi player (left) takes the ball past a parliamentary player
The Iraqi football team proved to be too good for the MPs
Fresh from their 3-1 win over Saudi Arabia last week, they were unlikely to encounter many problems facing 11 slightly portly UK members of parliament on the football pitch.

Despite the best efforts of the parliamentary team's assistant manager, Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich, who bellowed instructions from the sidelines, the ball kept sailing past his players.

In fact, the Iraqis netted so many goals, no one was quite sure of the score by the end of the match. Dr Gibson thought it was roughly 10-0, although the Iraqi manager put the total at 11.

But for MPs this was less about comparing nifty footwork on the pitch, than taking a breather from the political turbulence surrounding Iraq to help kick off the team's two-week goodwill tour of the UK.

Iraq faces a more serious side in Trinidad and Tobago at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, followed by the FA Select XI at Macclesfield Town's ground next week.

'Fun game'

They met the MPs on a recreation ground in leafy Chelsea. After a photo call, the two teams held a moment's silence before the match got underway.

The parliamentarians, wearing red and white, managed to hold their own for a full 15 minutes before the Iraqis slipped the ball past them and into the net. A second goal came swiftly after.

Nancy Dell 'Olio
Nancy Dell 'Olio joined the two teams for a photo call
At half time, Iraqi defender Hayder Ubaid gave a hearty laugh when asked if the MPs were giving them a run for their money.

"We are playing for fun, this is not a very serious game," he said through an interpreter. "Our next two matches will be tougher. We will be playing as a national side and our skills and ability will be tested."

Parmjit Dhanda, MP for Gloucester, admitted it is no contest. "We normally play other parliamentary teams and do quite well, but this side is a bit special.

"I think today shows goodwill among nations, and it is also a wonderful showcase for a serious football team."

'No barriers'

The event was organised by Truce, founded by England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and his partner Nancy Dell 'Olio to provide football facilities in war-torn countries.

The UK Parliamentary FC team has raised money for the organisation, and the Iraqi side is also involved.

Hayder Ubaid
We have felt free... and it's been good for our football
Defender Hayder Ubaid

Ms Dell 'Olio attended the event, in a stunning ivory suit and peaked cap, and spoke of the healing powers of football.

"This shows how football can bring people together. It's a way to bring peace and harmony to the world. There are no barriers on the football pitch."

She was echoed by the Prime Minister's human rights envoy in Iraq, Ann Clwyd, MP.

"It's great to see the Iraqi team back on the international scene. Among sportsmen there is no animosity. It shows that sport is universal and inclusive..."

She cut short her interview to cheer on the MPs. Was she showing her allegiance, I asked. "It's only because they are losing," she replied.

'Mentally free'

Among the crowd - made up mainly of press - was 37-year-old Mohammed Hamoud, an Iraqi who has lived in London since 1996.

A life-long supporter, he has not seen his national side play live since he left Iraq 11 years ago.

We knew there was more skill in the other team, but there were no red or yellow cards
Dr Ian Gibson
UK Parliamentary FC
"I am so excited they are in London," said Mr Hamoud, a chauffeur. "We have been spending time with them at their hotel, talking to them and taking them sightseeing. Some are our neighbours, they come from the same town as our families.

"In terms of their ability to play, their skills have improved a lot over the last year."

Iraqi delegation member Muid Salih, a player himself in the 60s and 70s, says the team are now "mentally free" after years of reported tyranny under the son of Saddam Hussein, Uday.

Hayder Ubaid agrees the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime last year has benefited their football, but he is less sure what it means for their country.

"We have felt free, from the government and Uday, and it's been good for our football," he said.

"But if we are talking about the political situation now in Iraq, it is very difficult. Before, there was just one enemy and we knew who he was. Now, there are many."

Too good

Captain Hussam Fawzi says the team has much international football to be focusing on in the coming months.

After their UK tour, they move on to Italy and in August they fly to Athens for the Olympics.

Taking a well earned breather... MPs at the end of the game
They have qualified for the Asian Cup, and at 44th place in the Fifa table they enjoy a better ranking than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So it was little surprise they ended the game in Chelsea looking barely out of breath.

The MPs, meanwhile, had faces almost as red as their shirts. They were still all smiles though.

"I'm proud of them," said Dr Gibson. "We knew there was more skill in the other team, but there were no red or yellow cards and the match was played in a good spirit.

"It's a good run out for them really, and it's no bad thing if they lose every once in a while. It brings them down to size."

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