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.