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Page last updated at 10:28 GMT, Friday, 17 September 2010 11:28 UK

Iraqi team helping people unite

New coach Wolfgang Sidka takes a training session
Coach Wolfgang Sidka brings together players from different backgrounds

By BBC's Sally Nugent

After a summer of watching international football at the World Cup, it occurred to me that sometimes a squad of footballers, with every possible advantage, still fails to play like a team.

Something about them, or the coach, or maybe just being away from home, stops the whole thing from working.

You only have to look at the France side that squabbled and sulked its way through the tournament. Or the England players, who seemed to barely recognise each other, despite the presence of some of the best known faces in the business of sport today.

The honour of pulling on a football shirt for your country is the same the world over. Maybe it is what is going on in the country you come from that makes the difference.

At times of war or unrest, sport can provide something for people to focus on and lose themselves in.

So when the BBC was given rare access to the Iraqi football team, I knew there was a chance we would meet some inspirational people and players.

I was not prepared to witness the lengths they go to every day to play the game they love for a country that inspires fierce loyalty.

This team is divided by religion, culture, tradition and politics. The squad is made up of a group of footballers who might, in everyday life, cross the road to avoid each other because of the way they've been brought up. Yet they are determined that nothing will divide them.

Iraqi players celebrate winning the United Arab Emirates International Cup, November 2009
Iraq have been threatened with a ban from international football by FIFA

No unrest will affect them. No politician will come anywhere near them. If this team spirit could be distilled and bottled, it would make someone a fortune.

We travelled to northern Iraq to meet the squad as they met up for the last time before a series of big tournaments in the Middle East.

The side has a new German coach, Wolfgang Sidka. All the players seemed desperate to impress him.

Training was fairly basic, made more challenging because of Ramadan. Many of the players were fasting, so days were spent sleeping and meeting to talk tactics.

At night, the squad eats together then starts the serious business of training and match practice.

I watched them play a full 90 minutes in the middle of the night. They played with a passion and aggression rarely seen at an international training camp.

Normally, it is all fairly tepid when I watch a team train, particularly when the cameras are there. A bit of light stretching and maybe a gentle jog around the pitch. The Iraqis don't appear to care who is watching - they threw themselves into it full throttle.

Away from the pitch, these men have to take serious precautions just to keep themselves safe.

We are used to seeing footballers in the United Kingdom living in luxurious gated communities, away from the prying eyes of the press. In Iraq, the gated community has an armed guard on the door and someone checking every vehicle for bombs.

And then, just to be sure, there's the 10-foot blast walls.

At home with one of the team, he explained to me that he has had to move his family away from the constant dangers of Baghdad. His brothers and sisters are still there and he worries about them every day.

Being a footballer has made him a target. And yet, playing for his country is the ultimate honour for him as a player.

We often debate whether footballers should be role models - and the Iraqi team certainly embrace that responsibility. They talk openly about setting an example for a nation that has spent years struggling to recover from one war after the next.

With that level of responsibility on their shoulders, playing to win is easy.

The full report will be on Football Focus on Saturday from 1215 BST.

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see also
Fifa issues world ban to Iraqi FA
20 Nov 09 |  Internationals
When football came home to Iraq
11 Jul 09 |  Middle East
Iraq banned from Beijing Olympics
24 Jul 08 |  Beijing 2008

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