Team Iraq Will Be Your Soccer Darling Tomorrow

There's some type of non-American football tournament commencing in South Africa tomorrow as an appetizer to the World Cup. And, look, there's Iraq. Wave to them!

Imagine if the Washington Nationals, née Expos, reached the playoffs. (A stretch, but stay with me here.) Now imagine Montreal getting invaded, bombed, and torn asunder by terrorism and American troops. Imagine Miss South Carolina mentioning Montreal during a pageant. Okay, then you might have a comparative situation on your hands. That's roughly what the Iraq soccer team — who won the Asian Cup two years ago, making them eligible to play in the 2009 Confederations Cup — went through. They practiced outside of the country, while terrorists were plotting against them.

"A lot of the players were under threat of kidnap or assassination," explained [British journalist James] Montague. "On the one hand, you had players who played abroad in Qatar, so they were worth money to their families, and they became targets of criminals and extortion.

"Terrorist groups would also target players because their victory was a nationalistic symbol; it was a unifying force, which both al-Qaeda and more separatist Shia elements and Kurdish elements were against."

Their head coach has taken five other countries to the World Cup, including the United States. Four of those teams advanced beyond pool play. This team — a mix of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish players — has no chance of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, sadly, so they're playing for pride, respect, and perhaps a Disney movie.

They are a hundred-to-one shot, doc, to win the tournament. Only New Zealand has steeper odds. And whaddya know, Iraq is in the same pool with the Kiwis, along with Spain (yikes) and South Africa, whom they play against in their first match tomorrow. At least I think it's tomorrow. Because it's hosted in South Africa, it may have already happened this morning.

The US troops may have given them democracy, but if they also gave them soccer advice, expect Iraq's time in the tournament to be brief.

Iraqi team a beacon of hope and possibility [CBC]
Milutinovic, Soccer's Happy Nomad, Has Deadly Serious Job in Iraq [New York Times]

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