BAGHDAD — A series of quick, short passes suddenly left Haitham Kadhim with an opening about 25 yards from the goal. His left foot lashed the ball into the far corner of the net. The thousands of Jawiya supporters packed into Shaab Stadium erupted.
"Say prayers to the Prophet Muhammad. Say prayers to the Prophet Muhammad," they chanted.
Across the thick iron fences that separated opposing fans, the Shurta team's fans applauded politely. They were acknowledging the quality of the goal and the sheer joy that after years of fighting, of games canceled because of invasion, car bombs, sniper attacks or sectarian strife, soccer is back in Baghdad.
"This is the first time since 2003 I've felt safe enough to come back to the stadium," said Mohammed Salih, 28, with the smile of a man whose team was winning. "There's so much news about bad politics and poor security. Football is the only thing that brings relief to my soul."
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For many here, life is soccer. Young boys wear European team shirts until they're threadbare; Barcelona is popular, but there are more than a few shirts celebrating David Beckham's superstardom in Los Angeles. Soccer logos have replaced war graffiti on blast walls. Adults chant and dance by the thousands again, in pure celebration, while watching matches.
In some ways, soccer defines this war-ravaged country. Want to understand Iraq over the last couple decades? Study the league standings.
The best teams have always come from Baghdad. Of the 28 teams in the leading league, which dates to 1974, eight are based in the capital. The air force sponsors Jawiya and the Baghdad police sponsor Shurta. The Ministry of Transportation sponsors Zawraa, the country's proudest club. The Ministry of Higher Education sponsors Talaba, the students' team. Together, they make up the big four, with a combined 21 championships. Only two teams from outside Baghdad had won the league before the U.S.-led invasion.
The invasion killed two seasons — and changed everything.
When it sputtered back to life in autumn 2004, the Dawri al Mumtaz wasn't much of a league. Teams couldn't travel to games. The best players and coaches had fled.
The worse the violence was in an area, the worse its soccer teams were.
Ramadi, in insurgent- and al Qaida in Iraq-infested Anbar province — and always a fan favorite — was knocked out of the league.
Basra, where Shiite militiamen battled British troops, struggled to schedule games.
Najaf, where U.S. troops tried to pin down firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, was patchy at best.
In Samarra, where the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque ignited Shiite-Sunni Muslim sectarian war, the team crashed to the bottom of the league.
In the tightly controlled Kurdish north, however, the teams were finding success for the first time. Irbil won two titles, its first ever, in back-to-back years.
It was the fall of Baghdad teams, however, that raised the most eyebrows. It wasn't as simple as games lost.
Husham al Salman, a soccer writer for the newspaper Azzaman, can't remember all the players who were killed, especially after the sectarian violence escalated in 2006. He counted: three in a car bomb attack; one, while practicing, by mortar fire; another executed in his home; a stray bullet found another one.
Of course, there also were the kidnappings and the shrapnel injuries.
"Just now, it feels like a league again," Salman said. "With all the stars gone, how is the quality of play? It is much better than sectarian violence."
Which is why this past weekend, twice, Shaab, Iraq's national stadium and home to the big four, attracted thousands of spectators.
Shaab was built before Saddam Hussein's reign as part of Iraq's Olympic training complex. In decades past, Odai Hussein, Saddam's son, infamously tortured national team soccer players for losing games there. He also forced national team members to join his professional club, Rasheed, which won three championships.
Nearby are the turquoise clamshells of the Martyrs Monument, for Iraqis who died in the Iran-Iraq war, a reminder of the previous time that the league shut down for war. The stadium is also about a mile and half from Sadr City, the teeming Shiite slum, the site of the most recent and deadly U.S. military efforts in Baghdad.
Ahmed Nouri, a 42-year-old fan of the Shurta club and the owner of a travel agency, sees the game as a way to forget everything else that's happened.
"I'm a big fan, for more than 30 years," he explained. "I consider football my first hobby and my second job. With football, I forget the troubles."
He was among an estimated 10,000 people who turned out for this match. About half that many would turn out the following day for a match between Talaba and Nasiriyah.
With him was his brother, Hussein Nouri, 37, a Jawiya fan, who was just happy that Baghdad was safe enough again to make it possible to enjoy soccer. He's one of the estimated millions of Iraqis who fled the country after the invasion. He lives in Sweden, and he returned for the match.
"I spent the week visiting all the areas of Baghdad I love," he said, as his team won 2-1. "And I love Jawiya. I think they can win the league this year."
Soccer journalist Sajid Saleem, 47, of the sports paper Al Malaab, is thrilled that fans can think about championships again. He said that teams in the north still had an advantage this season. It's still safer to practice on their fields, and unlike clubs in the south, their players all have enough money to eat and train properly. Still, he suggested, "Soccer is the biggest issue in Iraq right now. After the invasion, the bombings, the strife, this is exactly what we need."
He went on to explain that with so many professionals having fled, the league now has many very young players, some as young as 16. They're skilled and exciting at times, but they lack experience, so they make mistakes. This is not unlike his country, he said.
"It is obvious the base is here," he said, smiling as he carefully avoided the Arabic phrase for "the base" — al Qaida. "The future looks good."
(Schofield reports for The Kansas City Star.)
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