For four days, the streets of occupied Iraq were consumed by another catastrophe compliments of the flailing Iraqi government. It wasn’t another dubious "election," or the imposition of a new sectarian constitution that consumed the lives of ordinary Iraqis this time around. Nor was it another massacre at the hands of the American military or their proxy militias that grabbed the headlines and the attention of Iraqis around the world. It was an affair that impressively brought together the dynamics of occupation, corruption, and death and dumped them on the beautiful game. It was a football fiasco.
On May 26, football’s international governing body, FIFA, suspended the Asian Champions from all competitions including qualifications for the upcoming 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The decision came in response to a decree issued by the Iraqi government to effectively disband the Iraqi Olympic Committee and all its federations, including the Iraqi Football Association. FIFA regarded this act as constituting government interference in the affairs of the Football Association, and decided to put a freeze on the country’s sporting activities until such a decision was reversed. The international ban came a week before a crucial match-up with the Australians in Brisbane.
To many sports journalists, and those close to the national team, the FIFA decision came as no surprise following comments made by the Iraqi prime minister at a made-for-TV sporting affair in Baghdad just days before. "At this time, we invite all our brothers to come forward with complaints against the Olympic Committee to ensure that we move forward and away from the problems left over by the previous regime," declared Nouri Al Maliki in front of the cameras at a decrepit gymnasium, and surrounded by heavily armed guards. The desperate setting of the statement was reflective of a government that has left no stone unturned in its attempts to gain legitimacy and divert attention from its repetitive failures in providing the basic means of sustenance for a beleaguered population.
Another indicator of an imminent disaster for Iraqi football has been looming in the background for decades. Prior to 2003, football in Iraq was at the mercy of Uday, son of the deceased Iraqi dictator. Widespread torture, misappropriation of funds, and lack of planning have left Iraqi athletes to depend on their raw talent and some luck to accomplish the numerous achievements they have been able to secure throughout the tumultuous period. Little has changed, however, for Iraqi sport since the American led occupation five years ago. Murder and kidnap have haunted Iraqi athletes and administrators just like it has terrorized the Iraqi people at large. One of the most glaring examples was the abduction of the president of the olympic committee in question, Ahmed Al Hijiya. In July 2006, militiamen, operating under the watchful eye of the Iraqi government, stormed a meeting of the olympic body and captured Al Hijiya. To this day, his whereabouts remain unknown. The Football Association, headed by Hussain Saeed, a former Iraqi footballing star, is looked at with disdain by players and fans alike who aspire to see professional management of the game’s affairs in a country obsessed with the sport.
"This account has been suspended. Please contact the billing/support department as soon as possible," reads the front page of the official Iraqi Football Association website. A sorry state of affairs for a sporting body that has received so much publicity for the heroics of the Iraqi team in the Asian Cup. In general, systematic theft and corruption have characterized the new Iraqi government, and logically the Iraqi Football Association would fit into this debacle as well. It took the United States only one year into their administration of Iraq to admit that almost nine billion dollars cannot be accounted for. Perhaps some of that money, siphoned out of the country, could have been used to reactivate the broken web link. Perhaps the money could have been used to increase the salary of national players, which currently stands at twenty dollars for each day spent with the team. Many of the players are still based in Iraq and use their only source of income to support entire families during these difficult times. Iraqi football continues to depend on the generosity of foreign based players who use their six figure salaries to outfit the side with proper shoes, training suits, and other sports equipment.
"Call me back in one hour," was the response given by Hussain Saeed, amidst the sounds of what seemed to be the clatter of glasses and plates, to an interview request. Needless to say, Saeed’s phone has been turned off since. The former Iraqi captain has been at the centre of allegations of corruption by the Iraqi Ministry of Sports and Youth.
"He ran away," exclaims Adel Abdel Mahdi, advisor to the Ministry of Sports and Youth, on the American State Department’s referring to Saeed’s residency in Amman and Dubai. Ironic accusations of public misfeasance from a member of a government that has sold Iraq, and its resources, to the highest bidder. Lucrative oil and reconstruction contracts have seen the profits of American corporations like Bechtel and Haliburton mushroom, while average Iraqis still struggle for the basic necessities. A report released by the International Red Cross on the fifth anniversary of the American occupation pointed to critical shortages in water, electricity, and health care. Many Iraqis still line up for hours to find fuels for heating and cooking, let alone driving.
"They are all thieves," says Fatah Insayef, Iraqi footballing legend, speaking angrily about the infighting between the Iraqi Football Association and the Iraqi government which led to the FIFA ban. "Everybody is after the money and fame, nobody cares about Iraq," adds the former Iraqi goalkeeper who played alongside Hussain Saeed in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. "If I was Hussain, I would resign, what is he gaining from being the president of the Federation?" adds Insayef in criticism of his former teammate’s career path.
"I would never work under occupation. If I work for the Iraqi Football Association, or if I work for any sector of the Iraqi government, I would be serving the occupation," added the displaced Iraqi player. Perhaps it was this final statement from Fatah Insayef that shed the brightest light on the decision making process in Iraq.
In a country that is administered by foreign military and corporate powers, government decisions, including sporting matters, must take American approval into account.
"The Americans don’t differentiate between civilians and fighters, they have torn Iraq apart." These are the words of Adnan Hamad, the coach of the embattled soccer team, uttered to a reporter from a major Arabic satellite network. Sentiments such as these are strictly forbidden in the new democracy created by America and her allies in the Iraqi elite. Criticism of the occupation render you an accusation of being a traitor, a supporter of dictatorship, or even a terrorist.
During the 2004 Olympic Games, Iraqi players responded to comments made by Bush attributing the team’s fourth place finish to American intervention. Players like Ahmed Manajid, Salih Sadir, and others denounced the occupation and said that if they were not fighting for Iraq on the pitch, they would be doing so in cities like Baghdad or Fallujah.
Critics of the occupation, like Adnan Hamad or Ahmed Mnajid, unravel the nifty work being desperately put together by the Iraqi government, whether it be through blaming failure on sectarianism, or by pretending everything is "okay" when the country scores a footballing victory.
The architects of Iraq‘s destruction include characters like Adel Abdel Mahdi, sport advisor to the Iraqi government. When asked about the possibility of a one year sporting ban for the country’s Olympians, he replied smugly, "they are only seven athletes."
Luckily for those seven athletes, and the Iraqi football team, FIFA announced on May 29, that the ban would be lifted after some last minute diplomacy by the Iraqis. The past week in Iraqi football tells a tale of five years of American occupation. What remains to be seen is the extent of the damage done to Iraq‘s qualifying hopes. The uncertainty hanging over Iraqi players must have had an impact on their preparation for the crucial game against Australia.
"I don’t want to answer any questions," said Nashat Akram out of frustration over the latest developments. The 24-year-old midfielder is one of Iraq‘s most talented players, and his contributions will be key to any World Cup success for the Lions of Iraq.
What is certain, however, is the damage this has had on the people of Iraq. The country sees the national team as the last beacon of hope in what is becoming an increasingly desperate existence. This past week reminded Iraqis of the fragility of, what to many, was an unbreakable icon of Iraqi resilience.
"We have nothing left but the joy of Iraqi football," says Laith Hazem, a thirty two year old engineer living in Baghdad, "but only when we have electricity of course."
Ahmed Habib is an Iraqi journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a creative coordinator with Independent Arabic Media and can be reached at [email protected]