The western media treated the Iraqi Asian Cup football victory as a superficial moment of euphoria in a country on its way to break-up. But it may be more than thatby Nibras Kazimi / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Unity through football
“I will take the cup to Thawra City—I mean Sadr City; I will take it to Kadhimiya, to Adhamiya, to Dora; I will take it to Basra, to the north, to Mosul. Even if they kill me, I am a willing sacrifice for my people.” So said 24-year-old Younis Mahmoud, captain of Iraq’s national football team, to Iraq’s official television station Al-Iraqiya during a snap interview in Dubai, following Iraq’s victory in the Asian Cup in late July. Mahmoud is a Sunni Arab who was born in the oil-rich town of Dibis, northeast of Kirkuk. He grew up among other Sunni Arabs, Shia and Sunni Turkmen, Kurds and Christian Assyrians—a diversity reflected in the team he led to Iraq’s first major football victory.
After Iraq defeated South Korea in a semi-final penalty shoot-out—unleashing jubilation among Iraqis inside and outside the country and raising cautious hopes of bringing the cup to Baghdad—Iraqi singers began to record songs for the final, and the ditty that became the team’s anthem began with the words, “Have you ever seen a player on the fields play while pressing his hand to his wound?”
Al-Iraqiya’s coverage was saturated with national unity, backed up with phone-in shows and constant spot interviews on the ground. For a week after the victory, there were street parties throughout the country, even in the restive Sunni provinces and the ostensibly separatist Kurdish cities. One popular slogan was, “Islam is Sunnis and Shias. We will not sell out this country.” On their way back to Iraq, the team made stops in Dubai and Amman, firing up celebrations among Iraqi expats. On returning, the team awarded the cup to a mother who had lost her 12-year-old son when a suicide bomber—in all likelihood a Saudi—targeted a group of Baghdad revellers celebrating the semi-final victory.
The foreign media treated this story as a flash in the pan, but it involved much more. These Iraqi men and women of all ages were sending a clear message from the streets. “We reject civil war, we reject violence, we want to live,” said a middle-aged man interviewed in Basra. The images of Kurds waving the Iraqi national flag and Sunnis in Anbar province dancing to blaring music in a former al Qaeda bastion did not fit the editorial lines in the western media—that Iraq is a hopeless sectarian ruin, enjoying a superficial…