From USA TODAY, Dec. 15:
For a sweet few hours, underdog soccer 'heroes' unite Iraqis
BAGHDAD — Army Lt. Ali Mustafa is ready for tonight. He has two clips loaded with bullets. He hopes to have a chance to empty them.
If Iraq's soccer team wins its match against Qatar tonight, he'll join thousands of other Iraqis in celebratory gunfire.
"The formation of our national team is a big blow to terrorism and sectarianism," says Mustafa, 30, a Shiite. "The power of football can unify all honest people of this country."
In war-torn Iraq, one force has succeeded in uniting the divided population: soccer.
Iraq's national soccer team has shocked the sports world by advancing to today's championship round of the Asian Games, an Olympics-style regional event held every four years.
Iraq will play for the gold medal against Qatar, which is also hosting the tournament. "They have succeeded in unifying us in one competition where the Iraqi government has failed to do so in three years," said Mohammed Abdel-Ilah, 30, a security guard and champion swimmer who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Iraq's national soccer team — dubbed "The Heroes" by local media — advanced to the finals by beating South Korea 1-0 on Tuesday. While the game was on, Baghdad seemed quieter than usual. There was little traffic on the road and no explosions. When the final whistle blew, Baghdad erupted in celebration with gunfire tracer rounds and fireworks lighting up the night sky.
"All Iraqis are supporting their national team, because sectarianism does not exist in football," says Ala'a Abdullah, 30, a lab technician at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital. Iraq's 20-man team includes Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. All the players are under 23, which makes them younger and less experienced than the teams they have beaten.
Government leaders are getting into the act. "The football games in Iraq have proven to be very unifying to our people," Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said by e-mail. "Nobody is asking if a player is Shia or Sunni or the sectarian identity of the player who has scored a goal," he said.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman, issued a statement congratulating the team.
Aisar Hamid, 28, who owns a cigarette shop in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood, says he wonders why the unity is limited to the sports field. "The daily question my friends and I ask is: 'Why can't the people of Iraq unite as they have united to support our national team?' "
From USA TODAY, Dec. 15: