IRAQ: International soccer returns to Baghdad
Iraq’s future might be fraught with peril. Bombs explode daily around the country and its myriad political problems remain unsolved. But on Tuesday night, Iraqis’ desire for ordinary lives was on display as international soccer returned to Baghdad.
For the first time since 2002, a team from abroad dared venture to Baghdad to engage in the national pastime. The opponents were the Palestinian team, a people themselves no stranger to war and still without statehood. Baghdad, where on any given day bloodshed can occur, from mortar fires, to rockets to suicide bombs, took all security precautions.
Tens of thousands filled the giant Shaab Stadium. Iraqi flags waved and the Iraqi soccer team was draped with flowers. The crowd didn’t care that an outsider might label Iraq and the Palestinian territories the two most dangerous places to live in the Middle East. Iraqis had one thing on their mind: victory and love of the game. The crowd was chanting: “With our blood and soul, we will sacrifice for Iraq.”
Some estimated the crowd was as high as 65,000. People were elated. “It’s a great thing that Iraq is embracing this game. A game between Iraq and the brothers from Palestine. By God’s will we will be the winners today,” said traffic policeman Mahir Mohammed, who helped guard the stadium.
One female fan, who identified herself as Maryam, believed it was fitting that Iraq and the Palestinian national team played the first international match in Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. “Palestine is suffering like we do. There is something common between us and them. We are both under occupation,” Maryam said. “We will show to the Arab and other nations that Iraq is safe and invite them to come play here.” The Iraqis went on to shut out the Palestinian national team, 4-0.
At least before losing, even the Palestinian team was delighted by the significance of the match and had pointed words for the United States, which at least one player viewed as partially responsible for Iraq's troubles. “I’m filled with joy and happiness to play in front of the Iraqi people. They are great fans of soccer,” said Palestinian soccer player Yahya Badran. “I call on all the Arab national teams to play in Iraq to break the embargo — the American embargo — just like the Palestinian soccer team did
— Saad Khalaf in Baghdad
Photographs by Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times