Pride of lions | Iraqi Asian Cup victory reminds a civilization what ‘normal’ feels like

Lions in a garden, stone panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, northern Iraq. The alabaster panel dates to 645 B.C.E. The Mesopotamian lion was hunted to extinction in the 19th century. (Room 10a, The British Museum)

What became of the lions’ den,
the cave of the young lions,
where the lion goes,
and the lions’ cubs, with no one to disturb them?
(Nahum 2:11, NRSV)

Baghdad | Scholars reading the verse from Hebrew prophecy relate the allusion to the “lions’ den” to the Assyrian rule of Ashurbanipal II (668–626 B.C.E.). Specifically, Nahum might refer to the caged lions Ashurbanipal would release to affirm his hunting prowess: “They let a fierce lion of the plain out of his cage and on foot … I stabbed him later with my iron girdle dagger and he died,” reads an inscription related to a period bas-relief.

Biblical authors such as Nahum saw Assyrian domination, symbolized by the lion figure, as the destroyer. In Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Assyrian kings likened themselves to lions, and so the recent resurgence of the Arabic phrase Assood al-Rafidain (Lions of Mesopotamia) to refer to the national football team. “It’s a way of labeling them with this unifying and historic cultural icon,” says Newsweek Baghdad corresondent Larry Kaplow, who appeared on our Aug 7 podcast (see below).

Rising above divisions by ethnicity and sect and scattered by never-ending violence, the Iraqi team, which trains and plays matches in Jordan, defeated Saudi Arabia 1–0 on Jul 29 to win its first Asian Cup. “We had only one player but with 11 bodies,” writes an anonymous journalist blogger (“Did You Learn the Lesson?” Inside Iraq, Jul 30). Expressing similar feelings, poet Adel al-Fatli in Baghdad daily Azzaman published “Yes, Yes to Football” in advance of the final: “Football managed to unite Iraqis / Football is worth 1,000 times more than policy” (quoted in “Notes from Baghdad as Kickoff Nears,” Goal [New York Times weblog], Jul 29).

Beyond the political readings, however, and the cravings for a more illustrious past when Iraq was a desired destination in the Arab world, Kaplow affirms how football through sectarian battle and dictatorship has thrived as a means to pursue normal life.

It’s a constant, omnipresent game. I was in a hotel where I stay a lot, where a lot of journalists stay, and there we had erected fortifications around the hotel and put up floodlights. That immediately turned into a nighttime soccer field, where the floodlights were, for some of the smaller children in the neighborhood. They could go out there after the searing daytime heat and play soccer until 9, 10, 11 at night on a cul-de-sac near the hotel.

Gen. David Petraeus here, who’s the commander of all the forces in Iraq, often when he goes out on a day trip on his helicopters will take a circuitous route, looping over the whole city of Baghdad, sometimes for 15 or 20 minutes. I was on one of these in his helicopter convoy. He does it to look at normalcy in the city. What’s the most obvious thing is you see football matches going on. If it’s after work hours, 4 or 5 in the afternoon, grown men—they’ll often have pitched in, gotten uniforms. So flying over the city you’ll see dirt pitches with nary a blade of grass on the whole thing, but goals erected and men in sort of fluorescent yellow, fluorescent green tops running around kicking soccer balls. And of course you see them when you drive around the city at that time of day.

It’s a huge pasttime. I suppose it would compare to other big soccer countries, whether in Latin America or Europe. It’s by far the number-one sport. Basketball is second, but a very, very distant second.

The day after Iraq’s 1–0 victory over Saudi Arabia, blogger Al Tarrar of Baghdad Connect offers a new design for the Iraqi flag. (Baghdad Connect, via Global Voices Online)

The yearning for normalcy screams from the Internet postings that followed Iraq’s victories in the Asian Cup. The numerous links from Salam Adil—a pseudonym for a London-based Iraqi blogger—at Global Voices capture with eloquence the writers’ integrity and authenticity. “Today, we danced for like 30 minutes or maybe an hour,” writes dulaimy, an Iraqi journalist who posts at the McClatchy Newspapers blog Inside Iraq. “i don’t know i lost sense of time while we were dancing. it felt so good. … i have to say the place look different; shiny. I am so happy for what happened today. I miss normal life … I miss it so much” (“Today,” Jul 20).

The writer of 24 Steps to Liberty, based in Washington, receives e-mailed congratulations from abroad that “hurt … to the core” as reminders of the transience of celebration. Nevertheless, the author continues that the messages created the sensation of being “a normal citizen of this globe. People emailed me not to talk about the last casualty number or the last development in the idle political process in Iraq, but to say congratulations. Oh people how much I miss this word” (“We Won, for a Change!” Jul 29).

And not to be dismissed are those who care little about football or who have given up, if temporarily. Iraq-based Marshmallow26, creator of It Is All about Our Life, for the most part avoids mention of revelry and celebratory gunfire following the football triumphs. In fact, during the tournament she washes her hands of the blogging enterprise:

What difference will my articles make? Nothing!! Who cares if I say that I spent 30 consecutive hours at home begging God with my prayers to get the power back on?? Not much!

What is my goal in this shitty life after I lost so many opportunities of studying abroad? Bewail my bad luck and try the same shit again! …

I need a break from my blog … until there will be something new, fun, real and exciting to write about. (“Until Further Notice!” Jul 19)

As of Aug 2, Marshmallow26′s blog has returned.

Bloggers help make accessible the personalities of Iraqis who, through the vicarious life provided by a representative football XI, did not miss a “chance to be happy about something,” Kaplow says. “Iraqis in general, by culture, are very demonstrative in their celebrations and in their mourning, in any sort of ceremonial occasion. They still have weddings here in Baghdad, and they are occasioned by large convoys of cars honking their horns, and people celebrating as they drive down the street.”

Simon Maxwell Apter, writing for the Nation‘s website, makes the interesting connection between the tendency of Americans to see the Iraqi conflict “as a series of connected anecdotes” and images, and a similar blurring of vision when it comes to world football (“Soccer Lions of Mesopotamia,” Jul 31). World soccer exists “as the sum of the craziest soccer-related events we hear about,” zipping past the shooting death of Colombia’s Andrés Escobar in 1994, assorted “hooligan-related” fracases, Zidane’s head butt and so on.

For a moment, perhaps, the two timelines have fused. The victory in the Asian Cup, a tournament that a vast majority of Americans had never heard of, allowed world soccer to gain a presence in the constant news cycle. While the Bush administration spoke softly about the recent result—in contrast to the 2004 Olympic Games, when Iraq’s fourth-place finish served Republican interests leading up to a presidential election—the Iraqi players soaked up plaudits in Dubai on Jul 31 and within the secured Green Zone in Baghdad on Aug 3. The Iraqi government promised each player $10,000 on top of the $5.45 million awarded the team in the UAE.

While they have been feted and enriched for their achievement, Kaplow reminds us of the humble living conditions that even these elite Iraqi players have experienced. Too, their successes and new access to bonus payments makes them more attractive targets for kidnapping by sectarian militias, the fate that has befallen numerous Iraqi athletes over the past year.

Many of these football players here, they haven’t been making much money. They come from regular neighborhoods. Many of them go back to regular neighborhoods. They wouldn’t necessarily have a secure place, now that they are celebrities, for them to be once they’re back in the country. In 2004, I was in some of their houses, and they were very normal, lower middle-class apartments or houses in busy areas. So they may not be very safe. They’re very right in being concerned about their safety in coming back to Iraq.

Kaplow once accompanied the Iraqi captain, Younis Mahmoud, scorer of the winning goal against Saudi Arabia, to a shared Baghdad apartment that “was very nondescript and very vulnerable if anyone had wanted to do anything to him.” The 24-year-old Sunni Arab, who plays in Qatar, did not return for the Baghdad ceremony.

Illustrating the precariousness, the blog author of Baghdad Treasure, a Baghdadi now living in Philadelphia, narrates the death of his cousin’s son Sameer, 17, killed in crossfire while trying to save injured neighbors from a three-story apartment damaged in a car bombing. The bombing occurred during the soccer tournament; sectarian forces used the cover of celebration to kill 50 in car-bomb attacks following Iraqi’s semifinal victory over South Korea. Watching the final on the Internet, Baghdad Treasure writes,

I couldn’t but think of Sameer and his grieving mother. He was a huge fan of soccer. I thought of him when our team won, and never forgot how his body was still at the morgue when the referee announced the end of the game.

Goodbye Sameer. We’ll miss you a lot. We’ll miss your smiling face when [you] always won [at] backgammon. We’ll always remember your earlier struggle and your heroism … (“Rejoice and Grief,” Jul 30)

Politics and violence abide. Yet soccer will be back, with a change in season. The national team’s next fixture comes Oct 8 in Islamabad, Pakistan, in its first qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup.

Additional sources

Kaplow’s archive of stories from his period as Baghdad correspondent for Cox Newspapers (2003–07) is still available. The Newsweek blog Checkpoint Baghdad offers occasional entries on the native soccer obsession.


  • Iraqi football authorities have banned three playersAli Mansur, Ali Khadher and Ali Abbas—for life for seeking asylum following an Olympic qualifier in Australia in November. Iraq was eliminated from the 2008 Olympic field and also drew what many consider the most difficult qualifying group in Asia for the 2010 World Cup; the group includes Australia, China and Qatar.
  • First-division club football returned to Baghdad on 26 Nov 07 (Bryan Pearson, “Crowds Jubilant as Football Returns to Baghdad,” AFP, Dec 1).

    Beating drums, waving flags, whistling and chanting, around 3,000 supporters ignored the presence of heavily armed troops and police to noisily cheer on Police College and Baghdad’s most popular team, Al-Zawra, as they battled it out on a threadbare pitch.

    The teams competed at Al-Shaab stadium in the capital’s central Zayuna district. The 2007–08 league includes 12 teams competing in three geographical groups. On Dec 15, Police and Air Force met at al-Shaab. Said Kareem Farhan, coach of Police:

    Iraqis have proven that they love each other and that they love life by willing to make this tournament successful. We are proving to the world that the people and athletes of this bleeding country are determined to lead a normal life.

  • Former Iraqi internationals—who experienced directly the wrath of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son and former head of the national football association—for the most part believe that the present environment is better for footballers than that under the Hussein regime (Owen Slot, “FA Helps Iraqis Forget Past of Prisons, Whips and Saddam,” The Times, Nov 19). But Kahtan Chetheer, now training as a coach with assistance from England’s FA, disagrees:

    Nowadays you don’t know who is following you or what could explode in front of you. You fear going to training, you fear moving about. It was much safer back then. Under a dictatorship, you had safety; that’s what a dictator does.

  • Steven Wells of Guardian Unlimited chronicles the U.S. military’s soccer-ball-distribution initiative (“How Soccer Became a Weapon in the War in Iraq,” Sept 19). “[T]here are probably more US-donated soccer balls in Iraq than there are depleted uranium shells,” Wells writes, but adds that the American sporting legacy has made little impression.

    The Greeks and Romans left us with athletics, boxing, wrestling and the Olympics. The British Empire gave the world cricket, basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, competitive skiing and all the footballs. But the new American empire—despite dominating world culture in so many other ways—looks likely to leave as its sporting legacy the square root of bugger-all.

  • In the aftermath of victory, Iraq gained plaudits at an Aug 1 papal audience. Pope Benedict XVI congratulated the team on a “historic success.”

    The Iraqis’ Brazilian coach, Jorvan Vieira, in a first-person recollection in the Observer of London, writes that he had banned “mention of war, religion and politics” among the team in the two-month buildup to the Asian Cup (“If Ever Anyone Needed a Win …,” Sept 2).

    I extended that to any questions asked by journalists. You just can’t afford to have any bad or sad emotions inside the squad in the run-up to a major tournament. If I found out that two players did not see eye to eye, for whatever reason, then I talked it out with both of them until the issue was resolved. No one was allowed to sit in their room nursing a grievance. We ate all our meals together and when that was done I tried to get everyone to spend at least an hour in one another’s company. I suspect you’ll find that our team room was no different from that of any other country—pool table, PlayStation, TV.

  • The New York Times profiles Gen. Petraeus, beginning with one of his evening surveys aboard a Black Hawk helicopter. “[G]limpses of the normal life that have survived the war’s horrors have helped to boost his own flagging spirits,” writes John F. Burns of Petraeus as they look onto “bustling markets, amusement parks and soccer fields scattered through neighborhoods where miles of concrete barriers stood like sentinels against the threat of suicide bombers” (“For Top General in Iraq, Role Is a Mixed Blessing,” Aug 14).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. [...] seems to have learned his lesson, and didn’t use the Iraqi national team’s victory in last summer’s Asian Cup as an opportunity to toot his own horn. Perhaps he didn’t need to: [...]

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.