Civilization about to die where it was born

Can football unite Iraq again?

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Christian Assyrian refugees try to find shelter in the St Joseph church of Erbil. "I'm afraid this will be the end of Christianity in Iraq", said bishop Basar Warda. (Picture was taken this summer).

The sun is gone, the ground shakes, blood flows more fiercely than the rivers.

Sportbladets Nemrud Kurt writes about the story of how football once united Iraq – and how the Iraqi people wish for the history to repeat itself in Asian Cup.

In Swedish

Every single one refused to step up, but no one had a choice.

Iraq played a qualification match against the United Arab Emirates, and after a goalless extra time it all came down to penalties. Abbas Rahim Zair trotted towards the ball, put it on the spot and shot. He missed.

Two days later the national team returned to the capital, Baghdad, and Zair was summoned to the headquarters of the country’s Olympic committee, to Uday Hussein, son of Saddam and chairman of the Iraqi Football Association.

The punishment for the penalty miss? Zair knew.

– This is the end, he said, terrified.

Zair was taken to jail and was tortured for three weeks. It sounds as terrible as it is and says a lot about Uday Hussein’s power and methods.

The ruthless son of Saddam threatened to chop off the players’ legs if they performed poorly, and forced them to kick a concrete ball while he laughed. A loss or a draw meant a bath in raw sewage or beating with electric cable, and more than once Uday rang the locker room at halftime to give mad directives on a sport he barely understood.

However, among all the men who had lost courage, one man fought back. His name was Emmanuel Baba Dawud and he was called ”Ammo Baba” – uncle father, or father Emmanuel.

Baba had tought himself the beautiful game by watching the British soldiers play, and then he went from phenomenal forward to manager of the national team. Whenever Uday raised his voice, Baba refused to lower his.

– Everytime Uday wanted to discuss football with me, he became furious when I ignored his demands. ”I will hang you to death and cut out your tounge”, he said.

The reason why Baba could stand tall against Uday was simple: The people had his back. Even Saddam called him the most honest man in the country, and Baba had become an Iraqi icon in the sports world.

Iraq learned something about football. Football learned something more about Iraq.

■ ■ ■

Mosul is the second largest city of Iraq. In ancient times it was called Nineveh, the Assyrian capital in Mesopotamia and the center of the world with over 100 000 inhabitants.

Here, between the twin rivers Euphrates and Tigris, the sown of future was planted, and the place is called the ”cradle of civilization”.

It is not a coincidence that Ammo Baba was of Assyrian descent, or that the Iraqi national team is called ”Usood Al-Rafidain” – Lions of Mesopotamia. It’s just that nowadays, the roar is more heartbreaking than heroic.

Iraq may be an artificial nation that the British created in the 20’s, but in a few generations people created a national pride. Now? Now the Iraqis barely have a banner to unite them. Several minorities tug-of-war is tearing the country apart – and in June, the terrorist organization IS thundered into Mosul.

They conquered the city so easily that conspiracy theories began as whispers and turned into screams. Since then, the world is lost in political forests, thirsting for help in the wars of desert.

What we know for certain? This:

Many inhabitants have been victims of many horrors that many people is affected by, and that very few are doing anything about.

The Middle East has always been a place where East and West meet. Since ancient times, the area has been a battlefield, and today is not an exception. Kurdish forces are defending themselves against IS to keep the dream of independence alive. Shia Muslims fear death, fully aware that the Sunni of IS want to massacre them off the face of the earth.

In war, the first casualty may be t he truth, but the biggest are the innocent people who end up in the crossfire.

1.2 million Iraqis are on the run. Among these are the Yezidies, who are now facing a genocide.

The men are being beheaded, the women raped or sold in the slave market, the children have gone from enduring the boiling heat of summer to the freezing cold of winter.

There is also the Assyrians. They are descendants of the people of Nineve who built the civilization. Their houses have been painted in red, marked with the Arabic letter ”N”. Nasrany. Christians. Like the Jews during World War II.

Their options have been clear: Pay an unreasonably high amount of taxes, convert to Islam – or die.

200 000 has been ripped from their roots. They have left Iraq’s second largest city, where the church bells have stopped ringing, something that has never happened before. Yet Mosul is just one of several affected places.

■ ■ ■

The journalist Muhammad Zakaria attacked with anger. He argued that it was Uday Hussein’s torture that ruined the Iraqi Football development by scarring the national team players mentally as much as physically.

When Habib Jafar signed a five year contract with a team in Qatar, Uday demanded almost half of his salary.

– We had no choice. Uday didn’t let us quit playing, and yet we could never play well because of his threats and punishments, Jafar once told.

Investigators of Fifa came to see what was going on, but Uday hid the players with noticeable imprint on the body. It was up to the beloved Ammo Baba to make a change. And when he battled, he won the hearts of the people, but not so much freedom in football.

The wars broke out.

First the Gulf War, which resulted in Iraq being forbidden to participate in several competitions, and so the country claimed it's worst standing ever in the world rankings. Then came the US invasion in 2003, and the national team was forbidden to play games at home – but in the same time, Uday Hussein was killed in Mosul.

Through the years he had managed to become an oppressor so horrific that Saddam himself didn’t want him as an heir.

As for the football?

After Saddam and without Uday, the Iraqi national team could smell the fresh air again, even though they had to train abroad. The preparations for the Asian Cup in 2007 was hardly optimal, but Iraq believed in the triumph.

A reborn national team won the tournament, led by a dazzling Younis Mahmoud as the key player who later that year was nominated for Ballon d’Or.

On the morning of the final game, two car bombs claimed 50 lives, but in the evening, the light overcame the darkness. No matter which ethnicity the people had, they were all Iraqis, proud of their nationality.

– A punch that came right in the nose of anyone who says we are divided. Look how we swept off the dirt of occupation politics and, hand in hand, won each other’s love, journalist Mahmood Farhan wrote.

Sports reporter Haider Abdali was happy as well:

– The team is mixed with players from all over the country. Now, and in the future, this team will be the symbol of Iraq.

■ ■ ■

”When the power of love overcomes the love of power – the world will know peace.”

The quote is beautiful, but a wishful way of thinking. Throughout history, wars have been fought because of money, and without using any theories to dribble past the defender of facts, it is clear that Iraq today hardly is an exception.

It’s about money, power, the economy. Or quite simple: oil.

Over 100 billion barrels has put Iraq in a second place among the world’s major oil producers – and assumably the success of IS came at a bad time for the US. More soldiers have been sent to the country, a US cooperation with Iran has been discussed, and the words from the 2003 invasion – ”No blood for oil” – proved to be fake.

Meanwhile, IS is spreading rapidly, with the city of Raqqa as a headquarter.

From Sweden, more than a hundred people have traveled to Iraq to fight, but they are driven by something else rather than money.

IS stands for the Islamic state, and consists mostly of Sunni Muslims from the civil war in Syria and from a disappointed minority in the Shiite-controlled Iraq. They have touted the caliphate and are using the sharia law in their pursuit of larger political control all over the world.

Recent reports claim that IS are planning to erase an important piece of the Assyrian heritage: they will blow up the city wall of ancient Nineveh.

So why even bother caring about football? If people can be shot on the streets, there is no need to go out and shoot a ball into the goal.

If civilization is about to die where it was once born, it would be only a dream to hope for a bunch of football players.

And perhaps it is precisely the reason why the Iraqis do it.

■ ■ ■

Ahmed Yasin, striker of Swedish team Orebro, has been selected for the Iraqi squad for this year’s Asian Cup. Not all the other players live like him.

– Some players from the national team have family members killed in attacks. These players are suffering psychological trauma for losing beloved ones, the youth coach Hanon Maskor said.

Mashkor seems to be a negative man, but he is realistic. There are also those who are realistic, but still positive, like Kamel Izegier from the Iraqi Football Association.

– During the US invasion of Iraq, the US troops blocked many roads with their tanks, so the kids were able to play football in streets. We want Mosul to be freed as early as possible after defeating IS.

The preparations have been poor – but Iraq won their first game in the tournament. The Lions of Mesopotamia then lost against the samurai of Japan, but the dream is still alive.

Captian Younis Mahmoud knows exactly what the trophy looks like, how it feels and how it tastes.

– We are here to make our people happy.

Perhaps it is enough. Perhaps not.

Iraq is a nation where the ground shakes, where the sun is gone, where blood flows more fiercely than the rivers – but Iraq is a country that refuses to give up as long as there is something to hope for.

When the national team won the Asian Cup in 2007, a little boy thundered down the streets on his bicycle. He yelled on the behalf of an entire nation:

– Our hearts beat together! Let the occupiers go to hell!

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, The Guardian, Hujådå,, Unicef