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Soccer victory provides a lesson for Iraq

Problems can be overcome if factions work together.

César Chelala

writes on human rights issues

Two dissimilar events with contradictory results took place recently in Iraq, practically simultaneously: the withdrawal by five Sunni ministers from the so-called unity government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the victory of the Iraqi national soccer team over Saudi Arabia for the Asian Soccer Cup. The first was indicative of the battle for power being waged among the factions present in that troubled country, while the second occurred precisely because those factions were able to overcome their deep-seated differences and work toward a common goal. The politicians could learn a valuable lesson from the athletes.

The withdrawal from cabinet meetings by the five ministers leaves the already paralyzed Maliki government without any active Sunni representation, other than Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who has said he will attend reconciliation talks. Furthermore, relations between Maliki and the Kurdish minority remain tenuous, even though the country's president, Jalal Talabani, is Kurdish. In a recent meeting with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Maliki agreed "to attempt to expel" a Kurdish separatist organization - the Kurdistan Workers Party - from northern Iraq. Erdogan had hoped for a stronger commitment, but Maliki's shaky relations with the Kurds require taking a more prudent path.

The Iraqi national soccer team's victory was all the more remarkable in that its adversary in the final Asian Cup match was Saudi Arabia, a three-time winner, the defending champion, and the country all observers had favored to win the cup again.

Jorvan Vieira, the Brazilian coach hired by the Iraqi team shortly before the final game, has spoken - in an interview published by Clarín, an Argentine newspaper - about animosity among the Iraqi players, especially between Sunnis and Shiites. The team was in total disarray on his arrival. Many players didn't even talk to one another, and, for the first two weeks, coaching was extremely difficult for him.

When asked how he managed to encourage civility among the Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and Christian players enough for the team to pull together, Vieira replied: "What I did was talk with them every day and tell them that unless they decided to work together, they wouldn't get anywhere and that they would leave the Iraqi people without any happiness. Every time two players had a problem, I took them into a room and didn't leave that room until the problem was overcome."

After the victory in the semifinal match against South Korea, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate - interrupted by two suicide car bombings that killed 50 people and wounded 135. A cause for celebration had become a cause for mourning.

"The day afterward was very difficult for us," Vieira said. "We all cried on watching the TV images of the tragedy, and we thought if it really was worthwhile to win, since if we won, people died, and if we lost, people also died."

According to Vieira, it was despair that gave the team the strength needed to play and win the final game. The players had learned that a mother who lost her son during the celebrations had spoken of the happiness of her boy's final moments, thanks to their team's victory. It made them think, "We have to win this final at any price and offer this triumph to that mother."

For a few moments the Iraqi people were able to forget they were living in a country ravaged by war and senseless killing. Their team's victory gave them hope, an example of the possibilities ahead if only they worked together, just as the team had done in order to triumph.

It can be argued that this was only a temporary situation. May the Iraqi leaders, however, make of this a long-lasting one, one that will restore a sense of humanity to their ravaged country.