The Iraq team might accomplish more to unite their country and bring it back from civil war than George W Bush's moronic 'surge' and Nur Al Maliki's sputtering government. Indeed the only undisputed benchmark of progress, if Dubya had included them in his report card to Congress, would be the success of the Iraq soccer team. It's a telling tale that Peggy Noonan, a Reagan acolyte, and a longstanding Dubya die hard, has abandoned him. According to her he has jumped the shark. Lost his marbles. Drunk the Kool-Aid. As he continues to entertain delusions of grandeur about the success of the war, the public and now Congress have begun to desert him. The emperor wears no clothes.
However there maybe a very good reason that Dubya did not include the Iraqi soccer team as a benchmark because the last time he touted them as a success the Iraqi national team rose up as one in their disillusionment of him. The Iraqi team became a focal point of the Bush re-election campaign as their participation in the 2004 Olympics, post Saddam Hussein was touted as a success, a symbol of free Iraq. One small problem was that Bush now familiarly, as his wont, conveniently forgot to take into confidence the Iraqi players.
At a speech in Beaverton, Ore., last Friday, Bush attached himself to the Iraqi soccer team after its opening-game upset of Portugal. "The image of the Iraqi soccer team playing in this Olympics, it's fantastic, isn't it?" Bush said. "It wouldn't have been free if the United States had not acted."
In a truly astonishing interview with Grant Wahl, the soccer team took their gloves off as election advertisements blatantly used them as campaign talking points.
Salih Sadir, a Iraqi midfielder: "Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign," Sadir told SI.com through a translator, speaking calmly and directly. "He can find another way to advertise himself."
If one looks at the Iraqi team, it is a rorschach of sectarian and regional divisions throughout the country. Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias united by the sport that Iraqis love the most.
Hawar Mulla Mohammed, is an Iraqi Kurd, born in Mosul, plays for UAE's Al- Ain, and anchors the midfield. Nashat Akram, the hero in the Australia win, plays for Saudi Arabia's Al-Shabab, and is a native of Al-Hillah, in central Iraq. He is one of Iraq's most promising talents increasingly linked to Roy Keane's Sunderland. Mohammad Yunus, playing for Al Gharafa, in Qatar, but born in oil rich Kirkuk, in Iraq Kurdistan is the country's most prolific striker. Qusay Munir, born in Sadr City, Baghdad, and one of the architects of Iraq's success in the 2004 Olympics, plays for Arbil FC, a northern club. Emad Mohammed, a star forward of the U19 team and subsequently, a key player in the 2004 Asian Cup was born in the holy city of Karbala, and presently plays for Sepahan, an Iranian soccer club.
Soccer as a uniting symbol for Iraqis, as a sport that rallies nationalism, is thus antithetical to the insurgents goal of unleashing sectarian forces. The inevitability of Iraqi soccer being targeted. This is a country that has seen many soccer officials and players kidnapped or murdered. No less than Ammo Baba, an Iraqi soccer icon, and the manager of the Iraqi team in its golden years of the 80s, was spared as he was assaulted and robbed at home by Iraqi insurgents.
Despite the violence, the players themselves are clear eyed about who is at fault. As much as the players detested the brutal Uday Hussein, his violence was entirely predictable.
When the Games are over, though, Coach Hamad says, they will have to return home to a place where they fear walking the streets. "The war is not secure," says Hamad, 43. "Many people hate America now. The Americans have lost many people around the world--and that is what is happening in America also."
Their resilience in a climate of overwhelming violence is a celebration of the human spirit. Their 3-1 dismantling of the Socceroos, admittedly aided and abetted by the most woeful display of defending seen since the fall of the Maginot line, was not something new or unexpected. The Iraqis have had their share of success, defying all odds, coming fourth in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, en route beating Portugal, Costa Rica, and Australia. The Iraqis also won the silver medal in the 2006 Asian Games, just beaten by Oman, 1-0. Their next opponent in the Asian Cup is Oman, setting up a rematch where the Iraqis will be looking for redemption.
Coach Adnan Hamad is gone and in his place is Jorvan Vieira, a Brazilian who accepted the position after three others turned it down because of death threats. The continued success of the team under his tenure will probably do more to further amity in Iraq than any other measure, because in the end it is their national team.