Can you envisage a crowd of 25,000 turning up to enjoy themselves at a fun event in Baghdad ? It happened in June at the Al-Shaab Stadium for a football match between Al-Zawraa and Al-Jawiya.
It should be no surprise. It is amazing how the people of Baghdad go about their lives and work in such dangerous conditions. Their commitment to soccer is widespread and it cuts across the religious and ethnic divides.
The Iraqis picked up their love of football from British occupiers a long time ago. It is rather like the legacy of cricket throughout the former British Empire, except that Iraq was a 20th century creation when the British Working Class were going football crazy. The game was introduced into our RAF camps and at the oil companies we ran.
The Iraqi national team has recently been training at a stadium I kept passing when in Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan in April. They have been preparing for the qualifying games for the Asian Cup. They are a fine team and have recently defeated Syria in a couple of friendly matches. They even have a game scheduled to meet a team from another would-be nation in turmoil - Palestine. The match is to be played in Amman in Jordan on 17th August.
It is a game that deserves to be beamed across the globe, just like the World Cup was. For when that contest took place, adults and children huddled around TV sets in Iraq.
Indeed the children were encouraged to take an interest by UNICEF who saw football as being a universal language which could help to break down barriers and advance every child’s right to live in peace.
The only thing that could stop masses of Iraqi people watching soccer on TV was the regular break down in their electricity supplies. But terrorists don’t like anything which brings people together on a cross-community basis. So they have moved in to attack the people’s game.
Whilst young men were playing football in the District of Amil in western Baghdad, two bombs buried in a field exploded and killed ten of them, aged from 9 to 20. There were another 15 casualties. In a nearby area, two mortar shells hit children, some of whom were playing football. Three were killed. And at Al-Hadhar in Nineveh Province, 160 miles north of Baghdad a suicide bomber ploughed in a police post at a football match, killing 3 officers and 7 civilians.
All above three attacks have occurred within the past fortnight.
When the military Junta smashed democracy in Chile in 1973, they took over the National Stadium and crowded 40,000 people into it, many of whom were tortured and disappeared for good. Terrorists in Iraq can’t operate on such a large scale, but they follow a similar pattern. Last year, the bodies of 19 Iraqis were found in the football stadium at Haditha, north of Baghdad. They were in civilian clothing and the Ministry of Defence stated that they were fishermen from the south of Iraq.
Nor is the national team free from pressures. Recently, 60 year old Akram Ahmed Salman (their coach) was forced to resigned following a second death threat. His assistant, Rahim Hamid also resigned after similar threats which he said arose because of his links with the Iraqi Sports Federation. The terrorists who threatened him don’t like the Federation, which they see as attempting to integrate those they wish to separate.
Sadiq Alwohali, an Iraqi football coach living in London, has set up a body called “Football For A Change”. When he recently arranged for a group of 12 year olds to visit this country to play games in Stoke Newington and Brighton, he faced considerable difficulties. An Iraqi Olympic official helping him with the finances back in his home country was kidnapped on 15 July. Then the authorities would not waive any of the £1,000 fee for visas, which can only be obtained at great inconvenience from the British Embassy in Jordan.
It is hoped to extend the project to cover girls and to alter the organisations title to “Sport For A Change”. The difficulty of women and girls being footballers and fans in neighbouring Iran was shown in Jafar Panahi’s fine film “Offside”, when a handful of women unsuccessfully attempt to attend the Iran v Bahrain World Cup qualifier and join the equally illegal mixed celebrations afterwards in the streets with their male counterparts. Needless to say, the film is banned in Iran itself.
For their love of football, many have to pay much more than the price of a ticket. In Iraq some are paying with their limbs and their lives. Only when peace comes to Iraq can they ensure that their playing fields will not double as killing fields. All of us should be keen to help them, not least those who are eagerly awaiting the start of our own Premiership season.