July 25, 2007

Futbol Is My Life

Iraqis love soccer. When I was in Baghdad I bought a soccer ball and organized pickup games inside our small compound. Between the Iraqi guards and soldiers, the Nepalese guards, and us Americans (usually just me), we could get enough people together to play up to 5 on 5. We couldn't play much more than that, we had a very small playing field due to the T-barriers and HESCO baskets, stacked two and even three high. The only other open area was just outside of the wire, next to the street; a football-sized field with a giant trench obstacle running the length of it to prevent car bombers from reaching our building.

So, we played in the courtyard, cramped between our building and the explosion barriers, on the hot cement. One Iraqi guard in particular stands out in my mind. He would strip out of his thick navy blue uniform pants, take off his socks and shoes, and play in his underwear, barefoot. On cement that had been cooking in 120 degree temperature. He was very good.

In one game another Iraqi guard sliced the ball of his bare foot. The huge gouge, I thought, merited some stitches. They drove him to the local clinic and three days later, he hobbled back to the courtyard after work, took off his shoes, wrapped his injured foot with duct tape, and began to play. When I told him he shouldn't play due to his injury he smiled at me and said "futbol is my life. If I can't play, no life!" He grinned, mussed up my hair and hobbled over to take his position in the field.

On another occasion I was woken up by my boss. "Get your stuff on," he said "there's some shit going on just outside." By the urgency and tone of his voice, I knew what he meant. I turned off the roaring a/c window unit that drowned out all noise outside and, sure enough, I could hear the cracking of single shots and the staccato of bursts. There was a big firefight going on. I grabbed my helmet, flack vest, and weapon and headed to the roof of the building to take up my firing position in between an American and a Nepalese guard. The night sky was lit up by tracers and the sound of gun fire was everywhere. It wasn't deafening, but we definitely had to speak up to get heard. Boss was on the sat phone several feet behind me talking to the TOC up the street when I heard him say, in disbelief, "okay." I turned to look at him as he turned off his phone. "Shit" he said. It turns out there was no fire fight that night. The Iraqi national soccer team had defeated Saudi Arabia. What we were hearing was celebratory gunfire.

News of car bombings in Iraq are so common that it is easy to not give it a second thought. I lived through a car bombing, back in June 18, 2004, and even I get "car bomb fatigue" with some of the news coverage. It is hard to describe the carnage caused by these weapons and even harder to describe the psychological effect, the heavy, oppressive atmosphere, the deep deep sadness, that these explosions generate--at least it did in me. But today's news of the twin bombings during street celebrations after the Iraqi national soccer team advanced to the finals of the Asia Cup--one bombing near the Monsour District, close to where I played my pick-up games, killed 30 people--brought everything back. I hope Iraq wins the final. It's against Saudi Arabia.

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