July 17, 2007 / 10:37 AM / 12 years ago

Korean football fuels dreams of Iraqi refugees

ASAN, Korea, July 17 (Reuters Life!) - The sleepy South Korean city of Asan is a long way from Baghdad, but 19-year-old Iraqi Dany Riad Fareed looks perfectly at home as he plays soccer on a grassy pitch.

Tall and lanky, clad in his black and white soccer uniform, Fareed shouts out for a pass as a group of young Iraqis engage in a competitive match against a team of Singaporeans.

Fareed one of several Iraqi refugees living in Jordan who have found in soccer, and in their dreams of a professional sporting career, a way to get their minds off an uncertain future and the violence wracking their country.

The team came to South Korea to take part in an 11-day gathering of over 1,000 young athletes from around the world competing across several sports. The tournament ended last week.

For Fareed, home was playing soccer with friends until three in the morning in Baghdad, dreaming of becoming a professional soccer player and idolizing French soccer star Zinedine Zidane.

But the 2003 war changed everything, destroying his family’s business and disrupting his engineering studies.

Today his home is in Jordan, along with other Iraqi refugees hoping the United Nations will relocate them. Fareed has yet to hear from his oldest brother who was left behind in Iraq.

“I cannot go to university or go back to Iraq to complete my studies. I do nothing. The only thing I do now is play soccer,” Fareed says.

The soccer team was brought together by head coach Ali Hafidh, a 45-year former player in the Iraqi National Team, who remains passionate about the game.

While doing business in Jordan, Hafidh would hear about a young promising soccer player among the Iraqi refugees and take them on board. Soon, had a team of young players, many of whom had worked their ways up the junior leagues in Iraq.

“Many people had a beautiful dream and for a lot of them it was football. I thought this was a way to connect one to another for the love of the game,” he said.

Hafidh’s team includes Sunnis, Shiites and Christians who play side by side while sectarian violence explodes in Iraq.

A LONG ROAD

Officials at the Interreligious Peace Sports Festival (IPSF) eventually heard about the group from Jordanian officials and offered to finance their travel to South Korea.

Since 2003, the group has organized competitions every two years for athletes from different countries and religions at the Sun Moon University campus in Asan, founded by Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon.

For the Iraqi team, who were the first to represent their country in the competition, deciding to come to South Korea was the easy part.

To make the trip, team members spent days securing the necessary travel documents from the Jordanian authorities and had to ask family, friends and aid groups to pay a combined $25,000 in costs. But it was all worth it, they say.

“We believe we have to represent Iraq everywhere and every place,” said the team’s assistant coach Raad Jassim. “We are used to facing all kinds of difficulties.”

Some of the players never made it past Jordan, and Hafidh had to join the team late as he unsuccessfully tried to find a way to get them out of the country.

“This is like a family. It’s a duty, like when a father provides for his children no matter how hard it is,” he says.

“These guys are big talents, not only in football, but also in school and in their lives,” he said.

The Iraqi team lost 3-0 against the college team of Sun Moon University, which some describe as the best in the nation.

When asked if they would like to eventually play in the Iraqi national squad, smiles grow wide before erupting into an impromptu chant: “Iraq in the World Cup in 2010!”

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