Monday, August 09, 2004

Iraqi Soccer and Bremer does a nice little ditty about Iraqi Soccer as it moves into the spotlight of the Olympics.


In the rubble that is their homeland, Iraqi soccer players fight the past and present to build a future

The players were unmoved by Bremer's congratulatory drop-in.PEOPLE'S STADIUM is the largest venue in Iraq, a gently curved structure where black-and-white portraits of Saddam Hussein once jutted from its rim like thunderstorms on the horizon. Some of the country's most important soccer games have been played on this pitch. Beneath the bleachers, on orders of the tyrant's son Uday, some of its top athletes were tortured.

The portraits are gone now, as is Uday. So it is with the élan of a liberator that on a sunny May afternoon, L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, descends into the stadium in a Black Hawk helicopter. Two days earlier, the Iraqi soccer team had earned its first Olympic berth since 1988. On the night of the clinching victory, against Saudi Arabia, Baghdad pulsated with rifle shots as the skies flashed with tracer bullets. Startled U.S. soldiers assumed they were under attack, but it was only the delirious outburst of local fans. Now it's Bremer's turn to throw a party.

The chopper alights on the pitch, and Bremer steps out, his trademark blue blazer and white pocket square flapping in the gusts created by the rotors. He is met quickly by several armed guards in wraparound shades who escort him to the assembled players. "Iraq is back!" Bremer declares triumphantly as cameras roll and reporters scribble. He repeats the slogan again and again.

But widen the lens a little and you'll see that the players, bunched behind Bremer as he speaks, are frowning. Widen it a bit more, and you'll see that People's Stadium is otherwise devoid of people. It is simply too dangerous to let the public near our man in Baghdad.

The soccer players were among America's biggest fans after the fall of the capital city. They played more creatively, no longer worried that a poor pass might lead to punishment from Uday, the onetime head of Iraq's soccer federation and Olympic committee. But now, 17 months after the Americans arrived, key facilities remain in shambles, pummeled by the war. The domestic pro league has been suspended, interrupting the payment of player salaries. The streets are so dangerous that some players use bodyguards to get them to practice. And Uday's lieutenants still run the show.

"Mr. Bremer, what did he do? He took photos with the players," says Adnan Hamad, the Olympic team coach. "The truth is, he never helped us."

Iraq's coach recently resigned because he feared for his life. His driver had already been killed. Iraq is truly free - everyone is free to do whatever the heck they want, apparently.

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