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LAST SUNDAY, on a floodlit soccer field 5,000 miles from home, an Iraqi Sunni scored a goal off a looping pass from an Iraqi Kurd, sending an Iraqi Shiite—the team's goalkeeper, himself a game-saving hero—into wild shrieks of joy. In a storybook conclusion to a remarkable run, Iraq's 1--0 upset of Saudi Arabia gave the Lions of Mesopotamia their first-ever Asian Cup championship and unleashed a spasm of Iraqi nationalism. "I can't express my feelings," Abu Ahmad, a Baghdad taxi driver, told SI. "We are so happy. Those 25 men brought happiness and hope to 25 million Iraqis, the thing our politicians couldn't do."
For one poignant moment, at least, the sectarian walls dividing Iraq buckled. In the Kurdish north, fans flew the Iraqi flag, an act that's officially discouraged in a region angling for independence. In ghettoized Baghdad, Shiite and Sunni friends who hadn't seen each other in years rejoiced together in front of televisions. And in Jakarta, Indonesia, the goal-scoring Sunni (Younis Mahmoud) embraced the slick-passing Kurd (Hawar Mohammed) in the center circle of Gelora Bung Karno Stadium to the sound track of the global cornball sports anthem, Queen's We Are the Champions.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Iraq's soccer triumph will change the course of the country's downward spiral. Sports is not government, after all, and none of Iraq's other recent soccer runs—to the 2004 Olympic semifinals, to the 2006 Asian Games final—quelled the violence that envelops Iraqi society. (As if to prove the point, suicide bombers killed more than 50 people who were celebrating Iraq's semifinal elimination of South Korea last week, and four people were killed by celebratory gunfire on Sunday.) But to ignore Iraq's championship would be to deny the simple shared humanity of screaming your lungs out for a team wearing your national colors. "This is not just about football," said Jorvan Vieira, Iraq's Brazilian coach. "This is not about a team. This is about human beings."
The Iraqi players have endured their fair share of the suffering. Noor Sabri, the Shiite goalie, lost his brother-in-law in a bombing just before the tournament. And for years Saddam Hussein's son Uday, the former head of the Iraqi soccer federation, tortured players who had underperformed, forcing them to kick immovable stones and caning their feet. These days the torture is gone, but the chaos remains. The Iraqi national team must train and play its "home" games in Jordan in order to avoid the war zone of Baghdad. Mahmoud, the tournament MVP, says he fears for his safety if he returns to Iraq.
Yet for all of the country's continued problems, this much is also true: Iraq is a rising soccer power. After reaching its only World Cup in 1986, the Iraqi national-team program fell into disrepair, the result of Uday Hussein's culture of fear and the thousands of young Iraqi men lost in the decadelong Iran- Iraq war. Now Mahmoud appears on the verge of joining the French powerhouse Lyon and becoming Iraq's first European star, and his national team is beating World Cup regulars like South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia. It's enough to send Iraqi fans into ecstasy back in Baghdad, where most areas still only get two hours of electricity per day. For Sunday's final Sami Jawad, 55, a teahouse owner in Baghdad's Zayuna district, bought 5,000 Iraqi dinars' (around $4) worth of gasoline for his generator, the better to show his customers the match. "I promised them that if we win, all their drinks will be on the house!" he said.
Jawad's tea was flowing like Guinness in Boston after Mahmoud's game-winning goal. Boys went house to house giving away free orange juice. Even women clapped and sang behind closed doors. The message was the same in Baghdad as it was around the planet: All hail the Lions of Mesopotamia. All hail the champions of Asia.
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