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Article:The Iraqi Men's National Soccer Team: At the Intersection of Politics and Sports

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First off, this is long overdue, but I wanted to wait instead of writing in the heat of the moment...

I'll start with a video. This fantastic goal is from this past weekend's World Cup Qualifier between Iraq and Australia...

That remarkable strike almost didn't happen. Look at the reaction of the fans. We all care about sports a ton, or else we wouldn't be writing about them. But just think...if you're a young person growing up in present-day Iraq, there aren't many diversions to escape the harsh reality of living in a war zone. Soccer, far and away the most popular sport in the country, is one of those diversions, and recently, the governing body of world soccer nearly took it away. On Monday, May 27, FIFA suspended Iraq's national soccer association, because of the Iraqi government's elimination of the country's Olympic committee and other national sports federations, with FIFA citing "serious political interference." FIFA gave Iraqi officials a Thursday deadline to reverse their decision, or else they would not be able to compete in FIFA-sanctioned events (which includes World Cup qualifiers) for one year. Shortly before the deadline feel on May 30, FIFA received a letter from the Iraqi government, clarifying that their ban applied only to shady dealings by members of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, not to the sporting events themselves. FIFA was satisfied, they met with Iraqi officials in Zurich, and Iraq was cleared to play again. Needless to say, FIFA has vowed to keep a close watch on sporting officials in the country. From an official perspective, both sides carry some blame for the near-suspension of the team. The Iraqi officials were cited in the first place for corruption and allegedly not holding proper elections; in a country where corruption is common at the top, sport fell victim to the power of the elite. The importance of the team to the players, coaches and fans were ignored in order to keep order at the official, not the competitive, level. From the FIFA side, I feel as though they were no so much incorrect as hypocritical. They were correct in investigating the system of command in Iraqi soccer, and keeping tabs on them. But the root of my beef with FIFA goes back to last July, when Iraq defeated Australia to win the Asian Cup, and FIFA lauded the victory as proof of the sport transcending political, cultural and religious borders. Fans from warring factions were celebrating in the streets. Together. Less than one year later, FIFA nearly punished the team that brought so much joy to people in a country in so much turmoil, when the team itself did nothing wrong. If FIFA had such a problem with the Iraqi soccer officials, they should have threatened to punish the officials themselves. They should not have threatened to eliminate the team, which had no control of the national body governing them. FIFA is in an interesting position; it defended its decision on Iraq by citing the politicization of the Iraqi national soccer committee. Yet, at the same time, Germany and Poland played each other in Euro 2008, with national newspapers in each country spewing abhorrent headlines, and 140 fan arrests before the match even started. When the game itself is politicized through fan nationalism, FIFA does nothing. But when officials politicize, they threaten the elimination of the sport. While claiming to want to separate itself from political football, FIFA simply watches over the most nationalistic sport in the world, and its fans' unadulterated passion is encouraged and applauded. I won't necessarily be rooting for Iraq, but I will be happy for the Iraqi people, who can watch and cheer on their team as vehemently as they so chose. I don't want to make comparisons to American sports, because the environment and the sports themselves are too different. But just be thankful we can enjoy sports freely, passionately and with no political implications. To end on an awesomely awesome note, the sexiest sports team on the planet looked excellent today, as Spain beat Russia, 4-1. David Villa netted a hat trick (the first on an assist from Fernando Torres, who I will now refer to as El Pecoso, or The Freckled One), and the last score came on a header (offsides?) from the fabulous Fabregas. The second sexiest team on the planet goes tomorrow morning against the Czechs. Viva Espana y Portugal!

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