Sports Nut

Soccer in the Axis of Evil

Iraqis reclaim their favorite pastime.

You know you’re in a soccer stadium in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan because above midfield hangs a votive mural of a squad saluting the late King Hussein, who smiles benevolently, hovering over the players like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Next to that mural is a giant picture of King Hussein and his son, the present King Adbullah, relaxing after what appears to be a none-too-strenuous tennis match. A cool fall night under the lights here seems as neutral a setting as possible for an Axis of Evil grudge match between the national teams from North Korea and Iraq, the final qualifying game for the Asian Olympic tournament.

For the Iraqis, it’s a big step on the road to regaining international respect. During Saddam’s reign, the team was perhaps best known for the brutality of Odai Hussein, who took delight in motivating his players through imprisonment and torture. The game gets a late start, 8:30 p.m., to allow people to finish breaking their Ramadan fast. Because people take their time eating the Iftar meal, the spartan stands (no luxury boxes here) are still filling as the players stand for their respective national anthems and the opening whistle blows. The Olympic Committee has brought about 100 Iraqi fans, and they are the loudest members of a noisy crowd that grows to around 2,000. The stadium is ringed by riot police who refuse to let more fans inside.

The police presence doesn’t dampen the crowd’s spirit. As men selling tea circulate through the stands, Khodouri, Iraq’s self-proclaimed No. 1 fan, leads chants of “Ali! Ali! Ali!” (homage to the most important figure, after Mohammed, in Shiite Islam) and “Brave for Mohammed!” to encourage his team, chants that weren’t allowed under Saddam’s ham-fisted secularism. Khodouri wears a red Iraqi flag as a poncho and is supported by his usual sidekick, a man in a green tracksuit and a red kaffiyeh who leads a core of drummers in the stands. “Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum—IRAQ!—bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, Iraq!” There is also lots of ululating and the occasional firecracker set off to celebrate a score (cue agitated riot police).            

Iraq needs to win by at least three goals to move onto the final qualifying stage for the 2004 Olympics. Moving on seems unlikely, since North Korea beat the Iraqis 2-0 in their last match. But a South Korean man sitting next to me predicts victory for the team, which have a very obvious size advantage against the North Koreans and often makes use of it, knocking its smaller opponents to the ground. “The North Korean team is weak because of their economy,” he says. “Maybe if their country is invaded they will be good at soccer again.” By the middle of the second period, the Iraqis are up 3-0. But then North Korea scores, putting Iraq’s hopes of advancing in jeopardy. 

Ahmed Radi, the only Iraqi player ever to score in a World Cup final (in 1986, against Belgium), is in the stands, attracting Pele-like worship as he always does. “Don’t worry,” he promises. “Our players will score again.” Iraq continues to play the way it has all game—not pretty, but fast and physical, repeatedly mounting attacks into the North Korean zone. With 11 minutes remaining, Qusai Munir strikes a goal for Iraq, and the defense proves more effective than Saddam’s elite Republican Guard.

The game doesn’t give the half-dozen North Koreans in attendance much to cheer about. Presumably all from the diplomatic core, they stare at the field impassively as their team falls. I try to talk to them, but they shake me off without taking their eyes off the game.

The North Koreans trudge silently back toward the locker room as the Iraqis celebrate on the field. Forgotten, at least for a moment, is the unrest in Baghdad that has kept the Iraqi professional teams from playing matches inside the country and the fact that there is little money available for the national or Olympic teams these days. Many of the professionals have taken whatever jobs they can find or have moved to teams in other countries. Only six the 22 players here trained in Baghdad the week before the game.

Things were supposed to be better by now. Near the end of June, the occupation-appointed adviser to the Ministry of Youth and Sport, Don Eberle, presided over a farcical “turning over” of the Olympic Stadium. The occasion included a scrimmage between a hastily assembled team of Iraqi professionals and an even more hastily assembled team of Marines. There were snipers posted around the stadium, and behind the standard ambulance a medical unit sat on a tank. Artillery holes pockmarked the bleachers, which were sparsely filled with bored-looking troops who rooted for the Iraqis. The home team trounced the Marines, 11-0, in a physical but friendly match. The quintessential American problem: great at war, not so good at playing the world game.           

Back at the stadium, Younis Mahmoud, a young Iraqi star who traveled from the gulf, where he plays professionally, to score the third Iraqi goal, sits in the tiny locker room. He’s nicknamed “Al-Morhib” (The Frightful), for his scoring abilities, but he hardly looks terrifying, smiling and holding a cup of tea. He takes a call on his cell phone and when he hangs up he happily announces, “Back in Baghdad they are happy! There is firing!”

I’m happy I’m not there to hear it. It’s difficult to enjoy sustained bursts of gunfire in Iraq, even if they have a celebratory air. When Odai and his brother, Qusai, were killed, the gleeful firing lasted 15 minutes and stray bullets claimed five lives. I was living in Baghdad at the time, editing an English-language magazine, and I asked Fadhil, the guard at our house, whether we could join the celebration. I was kidding, but he took me seriously. “We only have one clip,” he replied gravely. “We don’t want to waste it.”

Fadhil wasn’t against celebrating the end of regulation time for Odai and Qusai, he was just being practical. And as practical as bedraggled Iraqi people must be these days, they crave the return of their favorite sport. If they can’t have bread, at least they want circuses.