Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Saturday, 11 July 2009 17:49 UK

When football came home to Iraq

Iraqi football fans at the match in Irbil, 10 July
One young fan came with his face painted in the Iraqi national colours

By Neil Arun

Iraq thrashed Palestine 3-0 in a football match that will be remembered less for its scoreline and more for celebrations better suited to the lifting of a siege.

Forced by violence at home to play all its games abroad, the Iraqi national side ended its six-year exile on Friday in the northern city of Irbil.

Fans who had followed the fortunes of their team on TV roared deliriously as they saw the first players jog on to the pitch.

Chants of "Iraq, Iraq" rang through stands which felt, in the blazing afternoon heat, like the rim of an exploding volcano.

"Sport was under sanctions," yelled Iraq's most famous football fan, a man from Baghdad known only by one name, Khaddouri. "Now the embargo has been lifted."

Before kick-off, scores of white doves were released. They swirled around the stadium, unwilling to leave. Heavily armed soldiers shooed them off the pitch.

Welcoming the Palestinians

Iraq's national team is a regional superpower. Traditionally one of the strongest sides in the Middle East, in 2007 they were crowned Asian champions after defeating Saudi Arabia.

Palestine player Amar Abu Salil (L) vies for the ball against Iraqi player Hawar Mulla Muhammad in Irbil, 10 July
The two teams were playing a friendly

The victory coincided with the climax of the sectarian conflict that engulfed Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. Fans celebrated in the streets, briefly defying the threat of bombings that had become a daily norm.

The Palestinian team is one of the weakest in the region. It has developed fitfully, with the movements of its players constantly curtailed by the conflict with Israel.

At the game in Irbil, no Iraqi fans commented on the footballing disparity between the two teams. Instead, they focused on what they saw as a bond with the Palestinians - another Middle Eastern society brutalised by violence.

As the visiting team stepped on to the turf, the stadium loudspeakers urged the crowd to welcome them. The stands obliged, erupting in passionate cries of "Long Live Palestine!"

Parts of Iraq may now be safe enough to host a foreign team but the Palestinians' home is not. Like the Iraqi side a few years ago, the players must ply their trade abroad.

With few away fans accompanying them, they rely on charitable cheers from the home crowd.

Adjusting the Palestinian scarf around his neck, veteran Iraq fan Khaddouri said: "The Palestinians are our brethren. If they can send their team to Iraq, so can everyone else."

Kurdish scorer

The first goal came in the 30th minute of the first half, scored off a corner kick. The stadium erupted.


Victory for Iraq in first match for seven years

The scorer was Hawar Mulla Mohammed, a Kurd. In Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Hawar is a local hero.

He gives the Kurds a strong reason to support the largely Arab Iraqi team at a time of rising tensions between Baghdad and Irbil, most notably over Kirkuk, a violent, oil-rich city claimed by both Kurds and Arabs.

Another two goals followed in the second half. The Palestinians defended gamely, stifling the Iraqi strikers' more flamboyant efforts.

Khaddouri stalked the sidelines as if squaring up for a fight. He exhorted the crowd with his arms.

The chant came back from the stands for a man as famous as the players themselves: "Khaddouri! Khaddouri!"

Outside the stadium, traffic came to halt. Horns blared and young men leaned out of cars and pick-up trucks, draped in Iraqi flags or the Kurdish region's distinctive tricolour.

They lingered in the streets long after the game ended - like the doves, unwilling to leave. A few soldiers tried half-heartedly to usher them away.

Neil Arun is based in Iraq as an editor for The Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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