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2006 FIFA World Cup

Football brings welcome relief for young people in Iraq

© UNICEF Iraq/2006
Despite ongoing violence, football fans in Iraq, young and old, follow the World Cup tournament intently.

By Ban Dhayi and Sabine Dolan

NEW YORK, USA, 7 July 2006 – Despite the violence and chaos that have plagued Iraq in recent years (not to mention the sporadic supply of electricity), Iraqi football fans have been riveted by TV broadcasts of the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

For young fans in particular, the global tournament has provided a temporary respite from the effects of conflict – the sort of escape envisioned, in a more permanent form, by the UNITE FOR CHILDREN  UNITE FOR PEACE campaign launched by UNICEF and FIFA for this year’s World Cup. The campaign harnesses the power of football as a universal language that can break down barriers and advance every child’s right to live in peace.

“World Cup fever is sweeping the world, but we are missing out much of its excitement in the midst of killings, kidnappings, bombings, power blackouts and fuel shortages,” says Salam Nima, 18, an ardent fan of the Brazilian team who lives in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. “However, we continue to follow the matches on television, on the Internet and in newspapers.”

A force for unity

Falah Ali, 17, who lives in Basra, southern Iraq, has found solace from both watching and playing the game.

“When I was 12, I started to play football with my friends at school, on soccer fields and in the streets of our neighbourhood,” he says. “Even in the middle of the current upheaval sweeping my country, I find great joy in playing football.”

Falah dreams of becoming a famous player and representing Iraq at the World Cup one day. He sees football as a powerful force with a unique capacity to bring people together.

“A football team sets a perfect example for us of unity and perseverance,” he notes. “The group of players, each from a different background, train together and perform in such a harmonious rhythm that each complements the other.”

UNICEF Image: Newspaper in southern Iraq
A local newspaper in southern Iraq bears the headline: ‘Peace document signed in Basra allowing Iraqi football fans to watch World Cup’.

‘Passion for football’

Generally speaking, Iraq has enjoyed modern and well equipped clubs and arenas where athletes were able to practice and develop their physical skills. However, the ongoing violence has kept sport activities to a minimum recently.

The situation saddens Faihaa Jamal, 16, a high school girl living in the city of Hilla in central Iraq. Still, Faihaa is hopeful. The turnout of some 25,000 fans at Baghdad’s Al-Shaab Stadium last month to stand by either of Iraq’s two renowned teams, Al-Zawraa and Al-Jawiya, “bears testimony to Iraqis’ fervent passion for football and their defiance of all inhibiting circumstances,” she says.

But Faihaa, a supporter of Argentina’s team, has few opportunities to watch events such as the World Cup, let alone practice any sports. As a girl, she is much more restricted than her male counterparts.

“I like all types of sports, particularly tennis and football,” she says, lamenting her status “in a conservative society that has not realized to date the real value of exercise and sports in building girls’ physical and social development.”

Peace pact in Basra

When talking about football, young people across Iraq express a thirst for unity – a feeling that has led to a landmark initiative in Basra.

“Last month, I read in a local newspaper that politicians, clerics, dignitaries and tribal leaders in Basra had met at a business centre to sign a peace document in which they pledged to provide a fear-free climate for football fans during the World Cup,” says Majeed Fadhil, 22. “As much as it might sound utopian within the volatile context in most Iraqi cities, I find this Basra initiative an unambiguous message of peace and reconciliation.”

Majeed has been watching the games at the home of a neighbour whose coping strategy led him to spend $400 on a satellite decoder and another $130 on overhauling a generator – all so that he and his friends could enjoy the matches irrespective of restricting curfews.

For her part, Faihaa has high hopes for the future of the Iraqi national football team. “I cannot describe what it would mean for us if Iraq qualifies for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa,” she says. “Only then would we be able to see that peace and stability have finally prevailed in our country.”

Tim Ledwith contributed to this story.



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