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[SPORTS] Asian Games Soccer Final (Diversion from Adversity)

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  • madchinaman
    Asian Games soccer final serves as a diversion, if only for a moment By Borzou Daragahi, Times Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 16, 2006
      Asian Games soccer final serves as a diversion, if only for a moment
      By Borzou Daragahi, Times Staff Writer

      BAGHDAD — The streets were devoid of traffic, most shops were
      shuttered, and families were huddled at home.

      But for once it was not because of fear or a strict curfew in this
      war-scarred capital, but joyous anticipation: Iraq's national team
      had reached the final of the 15th annual Asian Games soccer
      tournament. And all eyes were glued to the match unfolding on

      "This soccer game is taking place under such a cloud," said Qassem
      Hossein, 50-year-old proprietor of the Karada Youth Casino, a rundown
      Baghdad teahouse where men gathered to watch the game and sip tea
      while seated at tables cluttered with backgammon boards and dominoes.

      "Through this team we can express the happiness which we have lost,"
      he said.

      Friday's championship match was set up Tuesday when Iraq's Samer
      Mujbel headed in the winning goal in a 1-0 semifinal victory over
      South Korea. That win sparked joy and an eruption of celebratory
      gunfire throughout the country and shined a spotlight on Iraq's team.
      Even U.S. political and military leaders praised the Iraqi team,
      which had made it to the final despite numerous handicaps.

      Unlike the highly trained and well-financed Qatari team, the Iraqis
      are resource-poor, without personal trainers and fancy equipment. A
      large proportion of the players come from Sadr City, the vast and
      impoverished Shiite slum. Some of Iraq's best players and coaches
      have been targeted for death and kidnapping. Newspapers reported that
      players practicing and training in Doha continually called their
      relatives back home during the tournament, worried that some calamity
      had befallen a brother or parent.

      Fans accused Qatar, this year's host of the tournament, of placing
      further obstacles in Iraq's way. A rumor circulated that Qatar was
      trying to lure away two of Iraq's best players with job offers and
      that the hosts were trying to change the game's location at the last

      To make matters worse, Iraq's top scorer and team captain, Younis
      Mahmoud, was barred from playing because he drew two minor penalties
      in previous matches.

      Iraq's team includes Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, even a Christian, and
      some commentators have breezily hailed the team as a force for
      unifying a country.

      But the reality is that Iraq's sectarian strife is creeping into

      Some Sunnis grumbled beforehand that there were too many Shiites on
      the team. They whispered disdain for what they called the "Iranian
      team," questioning the patriotism of the Shiite players.

      Hossein, the teahouse owner, posted a guard outside his crowded cafe
      to prevent suicide bombers wearing explosives-packed belts from
      entering. "I won't allow any cars to park in front either," he said.

      Still, this being Baghdad, everyone in the cafe had guns.

      As the game approached, leaders asked soccer fans to keep their
      weapons holstered if Iraq won. Save the rounds for the real war, one
      cleric suggested.

      "I urge the people not to shoot in celebration of the victory of the
      Iraqi team," prayer leader Sheikh Abdul Hadi Mohammedawi told
      worshipers in Sadr City hours before the game began. "It squanders
      ammunition, which must target the chests of the criminal killers."

      Throughout Friday's game, the Iraqis played sloppily. They were
      overeager and jumpy, and they failed to capitalize on their
      opponents' mistakes. They missed passes and clearly showed the need
      to sharpen their teamwork.

      But for the 90 minutes the game lasted, Iraqis back home otherwise
      embroiled in a bloody war were relatively united.

      "Twenty-seven million Iraqis are watching you," the television
      announcer said as a scoreless first half got underway. "The hearts of
      the Iraqis are with you."

      The denizens of the teahouse cheered when forward Mostafa Karim took
      control of the ball, eagerly hoping for a chance to head outside and
      pop off shots into the air in celebratory glee.

      "We need buckets of ammunition," said Hossein Hadi, an off-duty
      police officer watching the game at the cafe while showing off his
      loaded revolver.

      "We're going to open fire every time we score a goal." Together they
      cursed the Qatari players, some of them recruits from other

      "He's so ugly, even his smile doesn't look human," one viewer in the
      teahouse blurted about a Qatari Bilal Mohammed Rajab, who
      accidentally knocked in the winning goal in the second half during a
      mad scramble after a corner kick.

      Iraqi fans moaned in despair as the game's final seconds ticked away.

      Ultimately Iraq lost to Qatar and will be awarded the silver
      medal. "You are heroes, O lions of Mesopotamia," the television
      announcer declared as the game ended. "Silver is not a small thing.
      Second is a beautiful position. At Miss World, there is always big
      sympathy for the first runner-up."

      With the final score 1-0, the teahouse crowd quietly drifted away as
      night fell. Iraq's team of 70 athletes, competing in their first
      Asian Games in two decades, netted two silver medals and one bronze.

      "It hurts a lot when we lose," said Arkan Hamza, a bus driver who
      watched the game at the teahouse. "I dreamt of winning and that Iraq
      had achieved first place. But sadly we lost."

      So in the end there was no celebration and no shouts of joy — and no
      Iraqis died from stray bullets.
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