Monday, May 17, 2004

Banging Head Against the Wall

NPR this weekend:

PETER KENYON reporting:

If you want an idea of how passionately Iraqis feel about their soccer team, listen to this non-verbal reaction to Wednesday's night 3-to-1 win over Saudi Arabia that allowed the underequipped, undertrained Iraqi squad to get into the Athens Games.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

KENYON: Celebratory gunfire roared through the Baghdad night in a display of firepower not seen since--well, since November when the team beat North Korea to enter the qualifying round.

Unidentified Man: Billy, could you turn the sound off, please?

KENYON: But today, what might have been an unbridled display of pride and joy by Iraqis starve for something to rally around, it was turned into a stage-managed antiseptic media event featuring no Iraqi football fans, other than some of the cameramen recording the ceremony.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

KENYON: US administration leader Paul Bremer arrived by helicopter at the heavily secured stadium. American snipers watched from all sides as Bremer made his way to a podium on the playing field. He was flanked by several team members in their white playing jerseys as his remarks echoed off the empty stadium seats.

Mr. PAUL BREMER (US Administrator, Iraq): In about three months, you men will have the great honor of marching on to the Olympic Stadium. There will be hundreds of millions of people watching all around the world, and here in Iraq, people from Dahuk to Um-Kasr(ph) will be watching with pride.

KENYON: There was a smattering of applause and soon Bremer was gone in another cloud of helicopter dust. The players spoke with the media explaining how much their trip to Athens means to them, and they weren't critical of the Americans for this event, saying Iraq is a dangerous place these days and they understand Mr. Bremer's security concerns. Team Captain Basim Abbas dedicated this victory to the Iraqi people who he said recognized the team has succeeded against huge odds. When asked if he'd be bringing the spirit of Iraqis to Athens, he smiled.

Mr. BASIM ABBAS (Team Captain): (Through Translator) We're going to take the screaming of Iraq, the reputation of Iraq with us.

KENYON: Off to one side, a disappointed young Iraqi boy stood with his father. Thirteen-year-old Ali Hamid(ph) was in full Iraqi soccer uniform clutching a ball with both hands. His favorite player is left-wing Hawar Mohammed. He says when Iraq made the Olympics, his house erupted with joy.

ALI HAMID: (Through Translator) We were happy and we started screaming and jumping, you know, and it's an honor for all the Iraqis.

KENYON: Ali is already known as a talented player. He can keep a soccer ball in the air, hitting it only with his head 1,500 times, with his feet, more than 6,000 times. He was supposed to perform at today's ceremony, but he said the Americans wouldn't allow it.

(Soundbite of soccer ball being hit)

KENYON: With a little encouragement, Ali began deafly tapping the ball, first low, then high, then on to his head, neck and back. His brow slightly furrowed in concentration. Behind him, the team members wondered back to their bus. Even in the parking lot, there were no fans. It seemed local Iraqis weren't even aware their beloved team was here. When asked if they had a team song, one player leaned over and said, 'We're too sad to sing. Why do they keep the fans away?' The players said they'd get over their disappointment as soon as they were back among their elated families and neighbors. One said he bets Iraqis will cheer for the country's Olympic athletes who also include swimmers, boxers, runners, wrestlers and others far more loudly than they will for the interim government due to assume power on June 30th. But as one Iraqi attendee noted, for an American administration eager to publicize some good news about Iraq, the kindest thing he could call today's event was another missed opportunity.