Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Iraqi children dream of becoming football legends

BAGHDAD, Daily Times

On a dusty pitch in the heart of war-torn Baghdad, scores of Iraqi children are playing football and dreaming that one day they will become stars of the national team.

Oblivious to the death and destruction around them, they fantasize about stepping out in front of a packed stadium to score the winning goal for their country. "I love Iraq", says five-year-old Amir Hussein as he practices with friends at the pitch on Abu al-Nawas Street, a once-popular promenade on the banks of the River Tigris, now deserted amid the persistent insecurity gripping the capital.

Amir shares the same ambition as 10-year-old Hussein Ali Jaber and the rest of the 120 children who gather for weekly training on a playing field that was once reserved for the security agents of Saddam Hussein. "I want to represent Iraq". "I love football and I love to play with my friends," says Hussein.

The training school was formed six months ago by concerned parents in Baghdad's al-Karada neighbourhood to give hope to the city's children amid the daily diet of bombings and kidnappings. No fees are taken from children. balls and kit are donated by a charity.

"We started this school to give children a glimmer of hope. In the circumstances that we are living in, it is very difficult to find different activities for children," says Amer Fadel, a member of the nine-man organising committee. "In the first place, they are all our children. It is better to keep them under our supervision and busy them with harmless pastimes."

Children between the ages of five and 13, some wearing proper football studs, others simple training shoes or bare feet follow their coach's instructions, while US military helicopters hover overhead. "The children and their families are happy. We take good care of them," says Fadel.

Parents are reassred to know their children are having fun and safe from the wave of kidnappings that has devastated families in the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq, he adds.

The 40-year-old former member of the national squad admits that the number of children joining the club has increased since Iraq's men reached the quarter finals at the Athens Olympics in August. "Lots of children were eager to play football after the Olympics. It was a great team and most Iraqis had the chance to see guys playing live on television," says Fadel.

"I would love to be like Roberto Carlos when I grow up," says nine-year-old Amr, sporting the colours of Turin team Juventus despite his devotion to Real Madrid's veteran Brazilian defender. "I like the Italian club, but Roberto Carlos is a great player," says Amr with a smile before running back on to the pitch.

Source: Daily Times