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Soccer Could Save Iraq

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All around the world, winning and losing soccer games is a matter of national pride. Comparatively speaking, Americans care little about soccer. This year, team USA's strong performance in the World Cup inspired Americans to follow the sport in record numbers. Now that the sport has our notice, there is a good reason for us to keep paying attention. Believe it or not, that little black and white ball might just be the key to winning the peace in Iraq.

Under the former regime, Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, appointed himself leader of Iraq's national sports ministry. Like his father, Uday governed by fear and violence. He placed particular importance on soccer.

Uday punished poor performances by whipping players with electrical cords. A missed penalty kick could land a player in prison for weeks. After losing a game, he sometimes forced players to jump into a pool of raw sewage. When American troops stormed the Olympic headquarters in 2003, they found a torture rack in the basement.

Then a miracle happened. In 2004, only one year after the long tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his sons came to an end, Iraq's soccer team stunned the world by reaching the medal round in the summer Olympic games. They defeated top-ranked Portugal, Costa Rica, and Australia, ultimately finishing in fourth place, only one goal short of a bronze medal.

The Iraqi people were electrified. Bitter sectarianism seemed momentarily overcome by national pride. Soccer united the nation.

The team's miraculous success did not end at the Olympics. Three years later, the Iraqi team entered the Asian Cup tournament with a poor record, a new coach, and low hopes. Once again, Iraq surpassed all expectations, beating rival Saudi Arabia to become champions of Asia.

To win the game, a Kurdish player passed the ball to a Sunni, who scored the decisive goal. Meanwhile a Shiite goalkeeper held the opposing team scoreless to secure the victory. The religious and ethnic make-up of the championship team reflected the diversity of the Iraqi people. Iraqis of every kind took to the streets in collective triumph.

Apart from soccer, Iraqis have had little cause to rejoice in recent years. Insurgent violence continues to put the future of Iraq at risk. Peace and sustainable self-government still seem a long way off. Clearly, it will take more than a successful soccer team to overcome Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions.

Yet sociologists suggest that sports can play an important role in strengthening feelings of unity and national identity. Social theorist Alan Bairner has written of the ability of sport to unite members of a nation in a shared "communion" of nationalism. Other scholars suggest that sports can have a cathartic effect by channeling human aggression away from violence and into more healthy channels. Sports can shape political life.

Nelson Mandela used a racially integrated national rugby team to unite South Africa in the wake of apartheid -- a story now made famous by the movie Invictus. The nation Mandela helped remake successfully hosted soccer's World Cup -- an achievement that testifies to South Africa's positive development.

Since their triumph three years ago in the Asian Cup, the Iraqi soccer team's fortunes have faltered dramatically. The Shiite-controlled government has attempted to wrest control of the national team from the Sunni-dominated Iraq Football Association. FIFA, the sport's international governing body, has suspended the team twice in the last two years due to corruption and political interference.

The team has gone through six coaches in the last three years, and has performed poorly in regional competition. The Iraqis are the reigning champions of Asia, but they failed to even qualify for this year's World Cup tournament. Unbelievably, this was partly due to the team's failure to file some paperwork on time.

In Iraq, as in much of the world, soccer holds a place of tremendous cultural importance. The U.S. cannot afford to ignore the disastrous ongoing mismanagement of the Iraqi team. We should pressure the Iraqi government to allow the sport to operate, once and for all, free from political interference, in accordance with FIFA regulations.

Furthermore, we should pledge financial aid to Iraq's soccer program in order to help secure world-class coaching, administration, and practice facilities. The U.S. should allocate funds to market and promote the team in order to maximize its impact as a symbol of national unity.

Can soccer really make a difference? It may seem odd to regard soccer as a foreign policy priority. Indeed, the ethnic and religious rifts in Iraq's social fabric run deep. Nevertheless, soccer has real power to strengthen Iraq's social cohesion.

Pressuring the Iraqi government to provide adequate management for the national team should be a strategic objective. The U.S. has lost many lives and has spent more than a half trillion dollars in Iraq over the past seven years. Yet, in our struggle to win the peace, soccer balls could prove more powerful than bombs.