Feature: When Football Remains Iraq’s Final Glimmer Of Hope – A Tribute To Iskandariya’s 43 Martyrs

A Football Field, Where Dreams And Goals Were Once Paved, Now Sits A Makeshift Memorial Site.

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Few nations have experienced suffering in the same measure that Iraqis have. Decades of oppression and corruption have stolen the lives and futures of countless individuals across the country. Sadly, the situation only seems to be getting worse by the day with no visible light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel.

 

It was only a few weeks ago that a suicide bombing targeted a football award ceremony held in Iskandariya, Iraq. Dozens were injured and an additional 43 innocent souls were soon laid to rest, most of whom were children. Pictures and headlines soon spread across social media depicting shattered trophies and bloodied footballs. FIFA president Gianni Infantino eulogised, “It is a very sad day, when people going to a match together, become the victims of such violence.” U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon, who was visiting Iraq at the time, was also quick to condemn the cowardly attack.

Younis Mahmoud and former Iraqi International Emad Mohammed soon organised a fund-raising friendly in honour of the victims’ families with the likes of Nashat Akram and Karrar Jasim also taking part. The national team showed their respects by wearing black armbands and holding a minute’s silence prior to the crucial World Cup Qualifier against Vietnam. The Lions of Mesopotamia walked away with the three points, earning them qualification to the next round – a fitting tribute, if you will.

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“Your Country Needs You”

The so called ‘Islamic State’ immediately took responsibility for the attack, claiming “The battle has just started and the coming will be worst.” However, Iraqi officials in the Babil Province say that the attack was carried out in order to destabilize the confidence of the Iraqi people as well as seek revenge for the many victories the Iraqi army and paramilitary forces have fought and won against ISIS.

image6Shocking images flooded social media, highlighting broken trophies littered across the ground as people inspect the aftermath of the suicide bombing, roughly 40 kilometres south of Baghdad, Iraq.

In a country torn by war, Iraqis view football as one of the very few means of unifying an otherwise fragile nation. For the boys living in impoverished villages, football is not just a game, but a dream which offers an escape from the daily realities of war – a dream now shattered by explosives. However, Swindon Town’s Iraqi international Yaser Kasim still believes that football can be used as a means of hope and that it may even have the power to heal. Born in Baghdad, Yaser himself is no stranger to life and football in the streets of Iraq. The youngster’s family were previously forced to flee the country which suffered pitifully at the hands of a dictator.

Yaser Kasim was one of the first to visit Iskandariya shortly after the bombing. Meeting with families of the deceased and those affected by the tragedy, he spoke to The New York Times:

“A friend drove me to the stadium, and as soon as I opened the door of the car, a man came running up close to me,” Kasim said. “He was very emotional. In Arabic, he said: ‘I’ve been crying all the time, but now you’re here, I am going to stop. I’ve lost my son, but I have another son in you.’ I didn’t know what to say.”

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Yaser Kasim Visited The Victims Of The Attack Whilst Working Alongside Iraqi Charity YES2IRAQ, Who Help Young Orphans Across The Country

Kasim also recalled visiting the home of a 10 year old boy who had badly been burned from the waist down. Kasim had asked him if he loved football? To which the boy replied, “No, not anymore.”

“That was the saddest thing I heard,” he said of the boy’s declaration that he had lost his love of the game. “Because I used to be one of them, playing football on the streets and in these stadiums, without a care in the world. That’s the worst anyone can do — to take the dreams of a child away.”

Abbas Ali Al-Idani is one of the many fathers who recalls last speaking to his son. The father had received an excited phone call at work from his 13-year-old son, Karrar. He had called to tell him that he would be starting goalkeeper for his team and needed gloves. Al-Idani, who had been busy at work, could not leave. Soon after his shift ended, he went to a nearby store to buy gloves only to hear the sound of explosives. By the time Al-Idani had arrived at the stadium, Karrar had been taken to a hospital and died before his father could reach him. “What can we say? We can only thank God for everything,” Al-Idani said.

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A month later, the entire village still remains in shock. For the many families like Al-Idani left mourning their deceased children, all they have left is a makeshift memorial site that sits on the blast site that was once a football field paved with dreams and goals.

Despite all this, Yaser Kasem still believes that soccer can be a unifying factor for Iraq.

“As we were laying the flowers at the stadium, there were small children playing football on the pitch, and that was a magnificent image. It was the joy of playing football, and no one will take that away.”

 

The cowardly attacks of ISIS and their like have been bombarding the Iraqi people for years and these suicide bombings are almost a daily occurrence. Yet, even with the constant threat of death, Iraqis continue to live freely but with football the only source of happiness for many. The 2007 Asian Cup victory highlighted just how large an impact a football game can have on uniting a fragile nation – football succeeded when all else had previously failed. The Iskandariya attack were carried out with the intention of striking fear in the lives of youngsters – terrorists know just how important football is to the Iraqi people, therefore, taking away the last remaining ray of hope would have proven a devastating blow to an abnormally resilient and stubborn people. It is therefore fundamental that Iraqis continue to support the national team and local leagues, whilst also encouraging the participation of youngsters at grassroot level. IraqFootball.me would therefore like to commend Yaser Kasim, Younis Mahmoud and Emad Mohammed for doing their upmost to supporting this crucial cause – we would also like to take a moment to pay our own respects to the victims and all those affected by this tragic event.

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Rest in Power

 


This article was written by Walaa Al Taee.  You can contact her on Twitter or using the comment section below. We thank Walaa for her contribution to IraqFootball.me and look forward to working closely with her on future projects.

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