Wednesday 13 December 2017

Soccer does what politicians can only dream of for Iraq

James Lawton

James Lawton

THE next time somebody tells you football isn't worth the chequebook it's written on, that it is rotten beyond redemption, just show him a picture of the kid. The Iraqi kid, that is, the one who for once is smiling despite the clatter of gunfire; smiling because his team have just won the Asian Cup.

We don't know if he is Sunni or Shia, Kurd or Arab. We just know he is a kid who loves football. The world, if anyone making such a mess of the place cares to look, is full of them.

You see the power of the game wherever you go. Youngsters play in the slum streets of Africa and Asia and the poorest corners of Europe and the Americas and, even the former minefields of Bosnia and the killing fields of Cambodia, but you take it as much for granted as the sunrise.

Then you are reminded of its capacity to stop the world for 90 minutes when you see the smile of the Iraqi kid and ask yourself what else could put the misery of his ravaged country on hold, however heart- breaking the brevity of the interlude, quite like the universal game? A Middle Eastern foray by the new man of peace, Tony Blair? A burst of platitudes from Camp David by George Bush and Gordon Brown? Maybe not.

Of course there are too many wounds in Iraq to be healed by one night of euphoria - there were at least 120 serious new ones when a car bomb went off among fans celebrating out in the street the semi-final victory over South Korea, and there were also 50 new graves to dig - but if football will never on its own stop hate or war in the Middle East, no more than it did in the trenches of the First World War after the fabled Yuletide kick-about by German and British soldiers, it will always be capable of a profound comment.

It will always make for itself the point that in its beauty and freedom of expression, when it is played beyond the cheating and the corruption that has been heaped upon it so relentlessly in recent years by those who profit from it most, it sends the powerful message that even sworn enemies have more in common than they may think. For those who know and love the game there is no revelation in the picture of the smiling young Iraqi, only huge reinforcement of the view of the great writer Albert Camus that he learned more about life and character while playing in goal for the University of Algiers than he ever did hob-nobbing with the Left Bank literati.

We have all seen the power of football. Ian St John, the great striker of Liverpool and Scotland, a man of such fierce combativeness his adoring manager Bill Shankly once said he would have made a potential world middleweight champion if he had pursued his promise as a fighter rather than signing for his local club Motherwell, knew much exhilaration in his title-winning career.

But when he talks of the great experiences of his life he still counts among the highest his walk back from the stadium in Buenos Aires in 1978 after watching Argentina beat the Netherlands in the World Cup final.

Of course there are too many wounds in Iraq to be healed by one night of euphoria.Argentina, under the rule of the Generals and heading for the disaster of the Falklands War, was not the happiest place but St John recalls a delirious city where for a few hours all the misery in the world seemed to have been sluiced into the South Atlantic.

"I had to walk miles with the traffic at a standstill," said St John, "but I didn't begrudge a yard of it. I just felt so proud to be part of football, to feel the warmth and the power of it to touch people. I danced with an old lady."

Bobby Charlton tells similar stories, reports the emotion that comes when he sees kids emerging from shanties in Nairobi glowing in their football kit.

The face of the Iraqi kid reminds us that there is no game like football, nothing that captures the yearnings for distraction and joy for quite so many people.

It is true, hooliganism has ravaged the image of football for nearly half a century now but football didn't create the problem, society did, and the professional game that has over the years waxed so fat, has never seen its role as a protector, still less an exemplar of all that is best in sport.

It has been too busy accumulating power and hoarding the profits. The resulting crimes cannot be placed at the door of the game which has this week again proved its ability to entrance the world.

That talent was perhaps never better expressed than one evening during the 1982 World Cup when the Brazilian team staged a training session in a little town in the hills above Barcelona.

The atmosphere was of fiesta, and the young boys who were invited to join in a pick-up game with such stars as Socrates and Roberto Falcao and Zico had eyes that you had to suspect would shine for ever.

Because down the years football has attracted so much avarice and indiscipline and arrogance the temptation to assign such memories to a gilded past has maybe never been stronger.

But then it is always the way with football that when you least expect glory, it produces a force, and a spontaneity to lift almost any heart. It did in 1998, when a brilliantly organised World Cup was won by the 'rainbow' French, inspired by a Zinedine Zidane who grew up in the most notorious high-rise slum in Marseille.

Brazil became the glory of world football when it finally absorbed brilliant black players represented most perfectly by Pele.

Maybe, then, it was more than a random fact that the coach who inspired an Iraqi team riven by ethnic and religious rifts, to victory over the sumptuously accommodated and meticulously prepared Saudi Arabians, just happened to be a Brazilian. Jorvan Vieira said that he had fulfilled his contract by "bringing a smile to the Iraqi people."

He had of course used something beyond the means of any politician. He had released the power and the magic of the world's greatest game.

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