[SPORTS] Asian Games Soccer Final (Diversion from Adversity)
- 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,"
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
"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
"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.