Iraq a country geographically located in the Middle East, wedged in between Iran, Syria and Jordan. Is a place synonymous with war. Enter the U20’s Iraqi football team a squad of players that were not even born when the 1990’s gulf war ravaged their homeland. So how does an under resourced team in a war torn nation reach such great heights on the world stage.
The remarkable thing is Iraq are not doing this for the first time, in fact their golden generation was considered to have graced football pitches in the 1980’s. They won the Asian Cup in 2007, Finished fourth in the 2004 Olympics, have made three tournament finals in the last 12 months and their U17’s team has qualified for the world cup which starts in October in the UAE.
There are three main factors that contribute to Iraq being able to achieve so much with so little; pride, escape and a street football culture. These elements have been exponentially accelerated due to war, sanctions and the constant threat of terrorism.
Lets start with pride, in the last 20 years Iraq has been associated with terrorism and war. Iraqis see football as a way to showcase to the world that they are more than just a “hell hole”. Players have pride in their ability to fly the flag of their country at international events, while the Iraqi people are proud to flood the streets to celebrate, in the process risking their lives. In June alone more than 60 people were killed in football related terror attacks, yet the people have not stopped showing public support for the national team.
The second major factor is escapism. Football gives the people of Iraq hope, it allows them to feel normal and participate in something that links them with the rest of the world. 90 minutes at a time the people can forget about the recent loss of a loved one, the next explosion, when the electricity or water will be cut off and lose themselves in a football match.
Another aspect of escape is using football to achieve a better life. Players usually come from the poverty stricken streets of Iraq, their only chance at a decent life coming from playing football professionally abroad. This is a life or death struggle because players risk their life playing football in Iraq, but do so knowing that if they make it they can provide a better life for their family. At this point it is important to highlight that Iraqi players do not grace the football leagues of Europe not due to lack of skill or ability but due to staying with their families. Most Iraqi players play in the oil rich Middle East leagues because the clubs provide their families with a safe place to live outside of Iraq.
The last aspect of Iraq’s ability to produce teams that achieve so much with so little is the street football culture. Kids all over Iraq are kicking footballs around the street, organizing games between whoever decides to show up to play on the day. This is no different to how some of the greatest Brazilian players developed their touch and technique in the Flava neighborhoods.
In the early 1990’s in Iraq as kids we would wait until the daily aerial raids stop and then run into the streets to play football. We would organize games and each street had a team, yet we didn’t even have a football. We started playing with a bottle cap, until one day a kid found a flat football floating in a nearby river. We cut the football into four quarters so that each street had a ‘football’ and played for hours passing a piece of leather around. No goals just a brick at each end of the street, bullet casings from the night before were used as extra defenders.
Iraq is a unique country defying the odds on a daily basis and its football team is no different. No matter what happens against Uruguay in the U20 World Cup semi-final the fact for the last few weeks the Iraqi people have had a reason amongst all the pain to smile, dance and sing is a testament to football and the happiness it brings to those that need it the most.
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