Saddam Hussein is gone. But soccer is back.
A near-capacity crowd turned out Friday to see Iraqi champion Police defeat
al-Zawra 2-1 in the first soccer match since the downfall of Saddam, and to
cheer on Rad Hamoudi -- Iraq's greatest star, fresh from years in exile.
"This is a happy day, a new day for Iraq and Iraqi soccer," said Hamoudi,
the soccer great who captained the 1986 national World Cup squad before he
was forced to flee Saddam's regime. "This exhibition match is very
important, although the result itself isn't important at all."
Iraq's U.S.- and British-led administration sent troops to provide security
for the match, which was billed as a symbolic fresh start and a sign of the
return to normality in Baghdad, a capital ravaged by waves of looting and
arson since Saddam's ouster last month. A squad of U.S. infantrymen watched
discreetly from the cool shade of a hallway at the edge of the field.
The world soccer community has welcomed the end of the war and said it wants
to get the soccer-mad country reintegrated into international competitions
as soon as possible.
But most of Iraq's stadiums have been looted and much of the equipment,
including players' gear, has been stolen.
"My experience in the Arab world is that soccer is far more important than
politics," said John Sawers, British special representative for Iraq. "The
fact that people are getting back out to play soccer -- it's another sign
that people are re-establishing normal lives in this country."
Earlier this month, world soccer's ruling body, FIFA, decided to dispatch a
team of experts to Iraq to ascertain the condition of its stadiums. FIFA
also plans to help Iraq restart its 20-team domestic first league and
prepare the national team for international tournaments.
Soccer is the most popular sport in this country of 24 million people, and
the national team was considered an Asian powerhouse in the 1980s. It is
also seen as one of the few unifying forces in a country that comprises a
patchwork of rival religious and ethnic groups.
On Friday, al-Zawra's 10,000-seat stadium in downtown Baghdad was nearly
full well before the start of the match. The crowd cheered Hamoudi, long
considered one of the Arab world's best goalkeepers. "Welcome back, Judge!"
fans shouted, using his nickname.
Hamoudi left Iraq in 1988 when he quarrelled with Saddam's son Odai, who
headed the country's athletic bodies. Many have said Odai, who also oversaw
Iraq's Olympic Committee, punished and even tortured athletes who failed to
perform to his standards.
The popular former goalie, who returned this month from Jordan, is helping
reorganize the soccer federation. It collapsed after Odai and other top
officials disappeared ahead of the advancing coalition forces.
Hamoudi said the first priority is to get the country's Olympic team back
into the qualifying tournament for the 2004 Athens Games.
"That's why today's game is so important," he said. "It shows to the world
that we will be able to take part in that competition."
On the pitch, Hamoudi's former team, Police -- known in Arabic as
al-Shurta -- beat Baghdad rivals al-Zawra 2-1 in a fast-paced match with
first-half goals from striker Amar Ahmed and right-winger Ahmed Emnajid.
Police won the last league championship, last year.
Al-Zawra, which placed fourth in that championship, tied the score in the
15th minute through midfielder Haider Sabah, but missed a chance to draw at
the end when Mahmud Barakat, a defender who also plays on the national team,
grazed the crossbar with a volley.
The pace began to drop halfway into the match, as the players -- out of
practice -- wilted in the midday heat.
"What can you expect from professional players who are paid $100 US a month
and who cannot even eat normally to keep their strength up," Barakat said.
"It will require more than happy words to get Iraqi soccer back to what it
was in the 1980s."
Campione d'Italia: 1905 1925/26 1930/31 1931/32 1932/33 1933/34 1934/35
1949/50 1951/52 1957/58 1959/60 1960/61 1966/67 1971/72 1972/73
1974/75 1976/77 1977/78 1980/81 1981/82 1983/84 1985/86 1994/95 1996/97
1997/98 2001/02 2002/03
Coppa Italia: 1937/38 1941/42 1958/59 1959/60 1964/65 1978/79 1982/83
Coppa di Lega: 1995 1997 2002
Coppa delle Coppe: 1983/84
Coppa dei Campioni: 1984/85 1995/96
Supercoppa Europea: 1985 1996
Coppa UEFA: 1976/77 1989/90 1992/93
Coppa Intercontinentale: 1985 1996