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DISPATCH FROM IRAQ

Asian Games soccer final serves as a diversion, if only for a moment

December 16, 2006|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 television.

"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," he said.

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 minute.

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 sports.

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 cleric suggested.

"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 loaded revolver.

"We're going to open fire every time we score a goal." Together they cursed the Qatari players, some of them recruits from other countries.

"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.

*

borzou.daragahi@latimes.com

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