July 31, 2007 / 2:11 PM / 10 years ago

Iraq's soccer success exposes politicians' failure

<p>A resident celebrates in a street in Baghdad July 29, 2007, after the Iraqi team won the final game of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup soccer tournament against Saudi Arabia in Jakarta.Thaier al-Sudani</p>

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - If 11 young men can instill national pride and a sense of unity by playing soccer, Iraqis are wondering why 275 politicians elected to steer Iraq to a brighter future cannot achieve the same result.

Iraq's wildly celebrated victory in the Asian Cup on Sunday provided a stark contrast to lawmakers who appear hopelessly deadlocked over legislation designed to promote national reconciliation.

School guard Zuhair Mohammed, 35, spent half his salary this month on Iraqi soccer jerseys, flags and music CDs about a team containing Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish players.

"I hope the unity, strength and courage of the team can inspire the politicians to stop pursuing personal ambitions for the general interest," Mohammed said.

"But I'm not raising my hopes."

The soccer triumph was even more remarkable because players had only two months to come together under a foreign coach and had to endure logistical mishaps as well as the death of the team physiotherapist in a bombing weeks before the first match.

Two of the team's top players had relatives murdered before the tournament in the sectarian mayhem engulfing their country.

Iraq's government is struggling to provide basic services like water and electricity and has made little progress towards agreeing a series of laws that Washington hopes will defuse sectarian tensions.

Rafi Abu Hayder echoed the feelings of many when he said Iraqis were fed up with the performance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government and it should follow the example of soccer players like Younis Mahmoud and Hawar Mullah Mohammad.

"The politicians have failed to bring us happiness for four years now," clothes shop owner Hayder told Reuters.

"I'm sure if there were elections now, people would elect Hawar as president instead of (Jalal) Talabani and Younis instead of Maliki."

KISS AND MAKE UP

The players had their share of disagreements but buried their differences for the common good, something many Iraqis say cannot be said of the government.

After a row between Arab striker and captain Mahmoud and Kurdish midfielder Mohammad during the first match against Thailand, there were media reports of a rift in the team.

But when Mohammad scored a goal against Australia, he ran straight to Mahmoud to kiss him on the cheek.

Senior Sunni Arab politician Saleem al-Jubouri admitted the soccer team, known as "The Lions of Mesopotamia", had highlighted the failings of lawmakers from across Iraq's sectarian and ethnic spectrum.

"What the players have achieved in unifying Iraqis and bringing a smile to their faces has made us ashamed of our failure in creating the same sentiment," Jubouri told Reuters.

While some hope politicians can put aside their differences and replicate the hard work and determination the soccer team has shown, 36-year-old Abu Mufeed had a simpler solution.

"The people in government should just leave their offices and let the soccer team rule," he said.

"I swear, those lions would end all of these problems."

Additional reporting by Wisam Mohammed

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