Last Sunday, the Iraqi national soccer team defeated–astounded is more like it–Saudi Arabia by a score of 1-0, giving the people of this war torn country something it doesn’t get very often: something to smile about.
But this is more than just a victory in a sporting event. It’s a victory for all those, especially the people who have to live there, who decry the sectarianism which is rending this country apart. Midfielder Nashaat Akram said “This is a gift to the united Iraqi people, to the different spectrums of the Iraqi people.” Laborer Muhammed Hussein said, “They (the players) showed us what the real Iraq is and how we can work hard to be something. These players are what the Iraqis are”.
It is reported that t-shirts encouraging an end to sectarianism with the slogan “I am Iraqi” have sold out everywhere.
Of course, this is still Iraq, so it comes as no surprise that the day was also somewhat marred by sporadic bloodshed. Police shot some asshole attempting to drive a car bomb into a crowd in the south Baghdad neighborhood of Sadiya. Luckily the car exploded and no one but the suicide bomber was killed, which I guess made it a good day for everyone, including the suicide bomber.
Earlier in the day police stopped two Saudi Arabian nationals attempting to detonate cars packed with explosives in the eastern neighborhood of Zayuna. And I thought Yankees fans were sore losers.
But let’s focus on the good stuff for a minute:
In the northern Kurdish city of Irbil soccer fans waved the Iraqi flag, while dancing the debka, a traditional Kurdish dance, arm in arm in the middle of the street or atop moving cars, while In Kirkuk, a northern oil city known for its melange of ethnicities, Sirwan Rasheed, 55, a Kurd, said he erected flags in the team’s honor with friends of various sects and ethnicities — Sunnis and Shiites , Turkmen and Christians. Sounds kind of like Boston in October of 2004.
What’s important here is the example being set by this soccer team. The team’s leaders include both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, who work well together and talk publicly about overcoming sectarianism. People, especially young people, look up to sports heros, and the Iraqis are no exception. At a time when sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis have worsened in the Iraqi government and on the streets, the soccer team, known as the Lions of the Two Rivers, may have some part in helping Iraqis understand the benefits of putting aside sectarian hatred and working together to make their country a decent place to live. Sports heroes are role models, and Iraq certainly needs a few of those.
The strife in Iraq, and the rest of the world, for that matter, will never end until the people living there decide for themselves to choose peace over war, to choose understanding over hatred, to choose life over death. Can a handful of athletes, who seemingly have already made those decisions, be a catalyst to peace?
I believe they can. After all, I’m a Red Sox fan. I’ve already seen one miracle.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I borrowed liberally from this article for this post.)