Iraqi goalie Mohammed Hameed Farhan celebrates after the November 29 Gulf Cup match victory over the United Arab Emirates at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar. (Simon Holmes/Getty Images)

Iraq’s National Soccer Team Brings Unity to Divided Country

Unlike days of Saddam Hussein, players no longer fear punishment for poor performance – let alone political expression

An unlikely victor is emerging to unite a country at war with itself.

The Iraqi national soccer team is leading squads from eight countries vying for the title in the 24th Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation games, being played in Qatar. The final will take place on December 8.

The Iraqi team’s victories are a rallying cry for a country that has seen more than 400 deaths in anti-government demonstrations back home.

Protesters are citing dire economic conditions, government ineptitude and alleged corruption. The ongoing unrest, which began on October 1, led Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign over the weekend.

Members of the national soccer team have been active on that field as well, for gone are the days of Saddam Hussein, when the dictator’s son, Uday, would mete out corporal punishment or even jail terms for poor performances – not to mention unfavorable political comments – by athletes.

Today, Iraqi players decide for themselves when and how to engage in the political arena.

Hassanane Balal, a London-based journalist who covers the Iraqi national soccer team, told The Media Line that on November 15, when Iraq last played Iran before the Gulf Cup, team members celebrated their 2-1 victory by donning masks that street protestors wear to mitigate the effects of tear gas.

This was not done in a vacuum. It was seen as a message to Iran, which has also come in for criticism by Iraqi protesters. To ride out crippling US sanctions, Tehran is accused of sponsoring pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq and milking its neighbor’s economy, thus worsening the Iraqi standard of living.

“In a country where there is unfortunately a lot of division, whether it’s political, religious or sectarian in nature, [winning] and the football team itself symbolize the success of Iraq when we are unified,” Balal said.

“Success is everything for us,” he continued. “In a time of turmoil – which Iraq has been in for 40 years now due to different regimes and different political issues – the soccer team has been the only real outlet for fans to rejoice over.”

Balal adds that team players showed up at some of the country’s street protests days before leaving for the tournament.

With their activism – and now with their victories – the players have united the many factions in Iraq, including minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds. Balal says this has placed a heavy weight on the athletes to do well on the pitch, citing as a “perfect example” last week’s 2-1 Gulf Cup win against Qatar.

“It’s very important for Iraqis… that we can enjoy this time, when we come together and work for a greater cause,” he said.

Iraq is next scheduled to play on December 2 against Yemen.

Hassanin Mubarak, who writes about the Iraqi and other Asia-based soccer teams, notes that when an Iraqi player got hurt during a match against the United Arab Emirates, he immediately turned his attention to the demonstrators back home.

“He said [his injury] was very [minor] compared to the blood of martyrs who had died in the protests,” Mubarak told The Media Line.

He believes that most of the pressure on the players at the Gulf Cup is to “do well,” although the situation back home is clearly on their minds.

“During this tournament, the protests have affected the team,” he insists. “Recently, a protester was killed only a day after he praised the Iraqi team, and this message was relayed to the players.”

In effect, there is a symbiosis, with the players and protestors mutually entangled.

“The players are watching the news, and the protesters are watching the matches,” Mubarak said.

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