If the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future got together for a reunion, they probably wouldn’t play soccer. Still, as Iraq marched through the bracket of the Asian Cup soccer tournament in July, one had to wonder. Iraq 2, Vietnam 0 in the quarterfinals; Iraq 4, South Korea 3, on penalties in the semis after 120 minutes of scoreless soccer; and Iraq 1, Saudi Arabia 0 in the final. A betting man might pick Riyadh as the capital of our next unwinnable war.
Prior to 2003, Iraqi soccer players lived in fear of the bastinado, a torture device especially well-suited for punishing players who had humiliated themselves and their nation on the field of play. What better way, after all, to reprimand a soccer player than by savagely lashing the soles of his feet with a cane, a whip, a wooden stick? As any sadist knows, the many nerve endings and tiny tendons and bones at the bottoms of one’s feet make the beatings especially cruel; the bastinado was a preferred technique among Khmer Rouge interrogators, and it was the preferred technique of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son and, until the American invasion, chairman of Iraq’s Olympic Committee. Soccer was Uday’s favorite sport, and he took the national team’s performance quite personally and seriously.
Without a serious sustained presence in our sporting calendar (Let me know when networks scramble over themselves to bid for MLS broadcast rights), Americans have come to understand and imagine world soccer anecdotally, which is to say we imagine it as the sum of the craziest soccer-related events we hear about. In 1994, after Colombian defender Andres Escobar poked a ball into his own goal against the US in the World Cup, he was murdered by an irate fan in Medellín; we were rightly horrified. Earlier this year, amidst spiraling violence between fractious ultras–rabid supporters of Italian club teams–several matches had to be played in empty stadiums; we were rightly amused. And of course, in overtime of last year’s World Cup final in Berlin, Zinedine Zidane, arguably the world’s best player at the time, head-butted himself right out of the most pivotal moment of his sporting career; and we were rightly puzzled. (God knows if foreign observers now think that all American football players are masochistic dogfight promoters, but we, as a sporting society, would deserve it in light of the picture of international soccer we’ve created for ourselves.) The incidents described are outliers, but they’re the ones that stick in our minds; they’re the ones we remember when we see a soccer ball.
We’ve come to see the Iraq war in much the same way, as a series of connected anecdotes. A supporter points to a toppled statue, a purple finger, an assassinated terrorist; a detractor sees a beheaded contractor, a ceaseless stream of casualties, a schismatic parliament on summer vacation. We see Iraq as we choose which dots to connect. And now we’re presented with the story of the Iraqi national soccer team, a symbol of a nation triumphant and denuded at the same time, a bloody shirt both George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi could grab hold of to rally the base.
Iraq is now the king of Asian soccer. Electricity flickers on and off in Baghdad; oil pipelines lay sabotaged and dormant in Basra; and civilians blow each other up in Mosul, but Assood al Rafidain–the Lions of Mesopotamia–stand alone as 2007 Asian Cup champions, twenty-three newly minted ambassadors of the best soccer the world’s largest continent has to offer. In 2009, Iraq will join the likes of Brazil and Italy at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, the global tournament that pits continental champions against each other one year before the World Cup. Between them, Brazil and Italy have won nine World Cups; Iraq has participated in exactly one, in 1986, a three-loss, one-goal performance in Mexico superseded in futility only by Canada, who managed not to score at all in its own trio of losses.
The United States, recent winners of North America’s Gold Cup, will also compete at the Confederations Cup, setting up a possible date with the Lions that, if General David Petraeus is afforded his recently divulged timetable, could dovetail quite nicely with the beginning of the end of our occupation of their country. For the eleven Iraqis on the field, it could be a bittersweet match-up.
Iraq’s success in soccer is, perhaps, one of the few concrete triumphs to have come out of the quagmire. Call it a beneficent side effect. The WMDs were, indeed, not there, but the bastinado was, awaiting whomever Uday capriciously felt had embarrassed the country with a sub-par performance. Running possibly the only Ministry of Sport complete with a torture chamber and jail, Uday made Bob Knight look like Francis of Assisi. “We played every match with the fear of punishment, an intense psychological pressure,” Mowafak Nuri, a retired soccer player, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2003, four months after Uday and his brother, Qusay, were killed by the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul. “[Uday] destroyed the performances of the national team.”
The team’s revitalization since then has been extraordinary–and unavoidably draped in politics. Sunday’s win over the Saudis in Jakarta capped a remarkable three-year run for Iraqi soccer. A scrappy under-23 Iraqi side captured fourth place at the ’04 Olympics after losing, 1-0, to Italy in an emotional bronze medal match played just one day after Sunni militants murdered Enzo Baldoni, an Italian journalist working in Najaf. Both teams wore black armbands in honor of the slain freelancer in a natural gesture of mourning and solidarity, but, unfortunately, little overt notice was given to however many Iraqis the 3,200 Italian soldiers in the Coalition of the Willing had killed theretofore in the war; there probably weren’t enough armbands. After President Bush attempted to trade on the team’s success in a re-election advertisement, Iraqi players protested. Though Bush’s invasion had freed Iraqi players from Uday Hussein, something far more complicated than gratitude bubbled to the surface. “My problems are not with the American people,” coach Adnan Hamad told Sports Illustrated while in Athens. “They are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything. The American army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the [national] stadium and there are shootings on the road?”
This year’s Iraqi team again wore black on the field. In Baghdad following last week’s semifinal win, more than fifty people died from suicide bombings. The violence barely took a break after the championship. President Bush, perhaps having learned a lesson at the Olympics, thus far has remained quiet about the soccer news. Team captain Younis Mahmoud, though, is speaking from the winner’s platform. “I want America to go out,” he said. “Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn’t invade Iraq and, hopefully, it will be over soon.”
Iraq’s football adventure in Southeast Asia was probably made possible by the American removal of Saddam and Uday, another bullet point for war supporters to use to balance out that lack of WMDs. The Asian Cup has delivered real victory to millions of Iraqis; it’s a hopeful anecdote to point to, a miracle moment brought to you by Uncle Sam. Still, as one in seven Iraqis flees his newly crowned nation, it’s hard not to see the American adventure in Iraq as, at least for the occupied state, just another kind of bastinado.