Just yards away from the hectic shouts of Iraq‘s football supporters, their national team is handing opposition players the white rose of peace. Indeed, the Iraq national side is becoming a potent symbol of stability for a country in the midst of chaos.
In 2004 the Iraqi team captured the world’s imagination and almost took Olympic gold when they reached the semi-finals of that competition.
But since then the team has reflected the wider crisis in the country. The domestic league has completely disintegrated, the national team is unable to play matches in their own country and the head coach has received death threats.
Akram Salmam is an Iraqi football legend – he captained his country at their only World cup appearance in 1986 and is now their head coach.
A unified Iraq
Akram’s team contains Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims. He says the threats can come from anyone who’s against the idea of a unified Iraq.
He’s been forced to move the team’s training centre from Baghdad to the more stable city of Irbil in the north of the country. For now, all their games are being played in foreign countries.
Akram has considered quitting because of all the problems – but told me a keen sense of patriotism convinced him to carry on.
|Iraq’s football have given their fans plenty to
cheer about (Picture: GALLO/GETTY)
“Our aim is unity. We feel it is our national duty to play on, and we have to do so despite the threats and the hardship we go through,” Akram says.
“The Iraqi people are living through great oppression and they deserve some happiness, even if it’s just for 90 minutes,” he adds.
Footballers being footballers, the team itself remains an optimistic and united unit. Many still live and train in Iraq; some play professionally abroad.
Younis Mahmoud is their star striker and captain. Younis is the man his teammates and their supporters turn to for inspiration.
“At this moment, our team is the only source of joy for Iraqis. We are the only good face of Iraq – all united, from all sectors and religions,” he said.
“We are together in one team. For the players who still live in Iraq, the reception they get from the fans when they return home is unbelievable. It’s the only thing that can unite Iraqis right now.”
His strike partner is Emad Mohammed, better known as the Prince of Baghdad. He longs for the day he can return there to play for his country.
“I’m one of the lucky ones who have played on Iraqi soil and I know how it feels -that’s why I want it so badly, because I know I play better there,” he says.
“That feeling of playing among your own people is almost indescribable. I just hope I get it back one day,” he adds.
It appears a distant dream. A team so happy and proud to play for their country can do so only on foreign soil.