When the only religion is soccer

The yelling and cheering starts the moment the referee blows the whistle to kick off the game between the USA and the Czech Republic.

Iraqis are soccer crazed. “He who plays soccer loves soccer,” says Ammar Ahmad, 21 explaining why Iraqis are big fans. “Most Iraqi people play soccer in the streets, soccer fields and even inside their backyards.”

Iraq’s national football team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, but that has not stopped Iraqis’ interest.

“We meet daily to watch the games, and everyone supports his favourite team,” says Ahmad Baban, 20, a fan of Brazil. The South American team, favoured to win the cup, is especially popular in Iraq because Brazil’s style of play is similar to Iraq’s national team, according to some Iraqi fans.

Brazilian players are “ball magicians, and they give you the excitement you need in the football games,” Baban says.

Local channels air games, but they are pirated broadcasts and of poor quality. Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, satellite television is also available.

Ahmad said he spent US$280 on a satellite package that allows him to watch the games at home legally.

Because of the ongoing violence, most Iraqis watch the games from the safety of their homes.

“Before 2003, we would watch in the cafes and tea houses,” Baban says.

“Now the situation has changed, and we can’t leave our homes after 9 p.m. because of the curfew,” he says.

“Watching the game with friends is much more enthusiastic and exciting than watching it alone,” he says.

At this week’s party at al-Taee’s house, only one guest was rooting for the Czech Republic, which won 3-0. Others were pulling for the USA, even those who don’t agree with US policy in Iraq.

“Today, I’m supporting the United States and so are some of my friends,” says al-Taee, 24, shouting when US captain Claudio Reyna’s kick bounces off the Czech goal post.

“Politics has nothing to do with sport,” he says. “Those players represent the American people, not the US administration.”

A mixed group of a dozen Sunni and Shiite Muslims attended al-Taee’s party, despite the ongoing sectarian tensions between the two groups in recent months.

“We are Sunnis and Shiites here, but everybody speaks football,” al-Taee says. ‘ AP.

June 2006
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