In Iraq, Soccer Provides a Short-Term Salve for Violence

For a few nights this month, the rattle of gunfire in Baghdad streets meant something other than murder and mayhem. Iraqis of all persuasions united their firepower to celebrate the victories of their beleaguered national soccer team. In Baghdad, as spectators awaited results of Iraq's final match of the Asian Games, the guns went silent.

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COREY FLINTOFF: It sounded like the mother or possibly even the mother-in-law of all battles on Tuesday night, when Iraq beat South Korea to make its way into the final match of the Asian Games in Doha, in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Celebrants unleashed firepower ranging from pistols to machineguns.

It's hard to convey how much that string of sports victories meant in a country that's seen one catastrophic loss after another, and nearly every other facet of its public life. Iraq was back at the Asian Games for the first time since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The series began with a loss to China. But then Iraq's players stunned the Eastern sports world by putting away teams from Malaysia, Uzbekistan, and South Korea.

It wasn't easy for the team to get so far. The team's coach resigned in July, after receiving death threats. One popular player hasn't been heard from since he was kidnapped in September. Last weekend, the chairman of one of the country's leading soccer clubs was found shot to death. The team has no player over 23 years old.

On Friday, the final night, sports fans of all stripes gathered around their television sets to watch the hometown boys take on the host country for the games, Qatar, in the championship match. The Iraq soccer watching experience is much like weekend football watching in the U.S., with the same amount of passion but no beer. Fans agonize, cheer, and shout strategy at the running figures on the screen.

Iraq's best chance came early in the second half when -

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

Unidentified Man: Ala(ph) -

FLINTOFF: Kicked to -

Man: Mustafah(ph).

FLINTOFF: Who kicked to -

Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Whose shot went wide right. The Qatari team, in dark purple, came back to dominate the rest of the match. But both sides went scoreless until the 63rd minute, when Qatari defender Bilal Rijab(ph) slammed in the night's only score.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING CROWD)

FLINTOFF: After that, the green-clad Iraqis never managed to threaten Qatar's goal.

In the Iraqi capital, the Qatari victory received sports(ph) (unintelligible) recognition. But no matter how much ammunition may have been laid by, the night's quiet was broken only by the ubiquitous hum of sidewalk generators and the breeze in the palms.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL AND THUNDER)

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