More than footballers

Iraq is not just a side of fantastic footballers but a side of wonderful, principled young men who are flying the flag for peace.

One of the first public proclamations Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud made four years ago upon winning the Asian Cup was, inevitably, a political one.

'I wish America had never invaded my country and I want them out soon. Today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but out."

I first met Younis at the 2004 Asian Cup and, though still 21, it was easy to tell that here was a keen student of history, a man deeply passionate about his homeland and committed to doing what he could as a footballer to bring joy to his country.

That night in Beijing I was invited to dinner with the Iraq squad – a group who still count Younis, Nashat Akram, Bassim Abbas, Emad Mohammed, Mahdi Karim and Qusay Munir among their current number – to hear their stories of growing up playing football under the rule of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, was to be both moved and angered.

On one hand, every provision was made for success – equipment and training camps were available whenever needed.

On the other, the punishment for failure was often extreme – public humiliation. From a forced cutting off of hair immediately following a match to mild forms of torture.

To see this group of players win the Asian Cup in 2007 and to see what it meant to those in their homeland was to understand the power of sport.

Today theside is drawn of a mixture of Sunni, Shia and Kurd but, as both Nashat and Younis have told me on many occasions, this is a squad united despite their differences – a side that is, at heart, Iraqi.

Often footballers talk of what a win or a title means for them or for their club or even for their country but rarely do such words ring as true as in the case of this generation of Iraqi footballers.

Former goalkeeper Noor Sabri saw his brother-in-law killed shortly before the 2007 finals. Midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed’s stepmother was killed around the same time while Nashat’s younger brother, Hassan, was kidnapped in 2009.

There’s hardly a single member of the squad that hasn’t been touched directly by the sectarian violence.

So when I spoke to Younis after the side’s loss to Iran in the opening match here in Doha and, with tears forming, he told me he wanted to apologize to his nation, you knew it really meant something.

So it was, two days after qualifying for the quarter-finals when again he wanted to make his point, telling me, 'All Iraqis love football – this is the problem for me. Some countries love basketball you know some countries have sports that are more popular than football but for us, this is it."

'I see now on TV all Iraqis are out on the street and they’re happy and I’m happy because my people happy – you need to play for the heart and show this in the stadium."

As Nashat stated: 'We play for our country, for our people, we want to give them happiness because when we win all the supporters are celebrating in the street and it gives me a great feeling to know that I can bring something to my people."

A people whose death toll at the hands of barbarity continues.

In the ten days since the beginning of the Asian Cup, 65 people were killed in a crowd of police recruits in Saddam’s home town of Tikrit.

A pair of bombs targeting Shiite pilgrims heading to the holy city of Karbala murdered at least 50, 14 more were killed in an attack on a local security force in Diyala.

The same day a bomber wounded the deputy head of Diyala’s Provincial Council while killing three others and the governor of Anbar Province survived an attack on his convoy.

Then when the football side, known as the Lions of Mesopotamia, defeated the UAE to keep its hopes alive in Qatar, three people lost their lives in celebratory gunfire – a practice the government has been trying to stamp out.

Amid all the violence and loss in their homeland, the Iraqi players, through an initiative of their Australian-raised team liaison officer, found the time to sign a shirt with messages of sympathy to present to the Socceroos after the recent floods in Australia.

This is not just a side of fantastic footballers but a side of wonderful, principled young men who are flying the flag for peace.

They should be loudly applauded.