Monday, July 30, 2007

Can Soccer Save Iraq? [J. Mark English]

In short: No. But it can provide some inspiration for a country that is struggling to deal with the ideal of unity.

The nation of Iraq should be proud of the historic achievement of its soccer team. The Iraqi team captured the Asian Cup, and with it, the heart of a young, but troubled nation. Julian Linden of UK Reuters has more:

Iraq completed one of sport's great fairytales by beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the Asian Cup final on Sunday to provide a rare moment for celebration in their war-torn homeland.

The Saudis had been bidding to become the first four-times winners of the tournament but Iraq, riding a wave of global sentiment, upset the hot-favourites for a rare slice of sporting glory.

"This is not just about football... this is more important than that," Iraq's Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira told a news conference.

"This has brought great happiness to a whole country. This is not about a team, this is about human beings."

Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud scored the winner in the 71st minute when he climbed above the defence at the far post and headed a perfectly-weighted corner from Hawar Mulla Mohammed into the net.

The Iraqis might have had won more comfortably if they had capitalised on their many scoring chances, only to be denied by a combination of sloppy finishing and extraordinary saves from Saudi goalkeeper Yasser Al Mosailem.

Saudi Arabia had been the best attacking team in the tournament, scoring 12 goals on their way to the final, but could not find a way past the Iraqis, who had the best defence in the competition, conceding just two goals in six matches.

"Iraq deserved to win today," Saudi coach Helio Cesar dos Anjos said. "They were very motivated and we knew the whole world was supporting this team."

Now lets put this team into perspective. Most of the best players available to Iraq had deserted the country for fear of being killed. The team had to deal with constant division among its own players between Sunnis and Shias. On top of this, the team was ripe with awkward diversity, which most thought could never mesh. The team was a schmorgusboard of Sunni's, Shia's, Kurds, Turks, and Christians. All of them, played together as a team. This was in spite of death threats to them and their families.

If the Iraqi government, and the people as a whole can learn anything from this team's achievement, its that the only way that country will ever begin to thrive is if they can put aside their differences and work towards a common goal. A goal which seeks to establish a safe, and strong Iraq that can be a light to the rest of the Middle East.