Friday, October 22, 2004

Iraqi League finally kicks off in Baghdad

Baghdad, Reuters, By Mussab Al-Khairalla

Iraq's domestic soccer league kicked off Wednesday for the first time since American-led forces invaded the country to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.

The opening fixture resulted in a 5-1 victory for al-Shurta, which means 'The Police' in Arabic, against Naft-ul-Junoob at a small stadium in one of the most dangerous areas of Baghdad.

With three government ministries and the police academy close by -- all regular targets for insurgents firing mortars -- security was visibly stepped up before kickoff and all of the approximately 100 fans were body-searched.

Last year, the Iraqi soccer association attempted to revive the league, but crowd trouble and a lack of resources meant it was swiftly canceled.

The relaunch of the league is a major boost for Iraqi sport, long crippled by security fears and a lack of funding.

Soccer -- Iraq's most popular sport -- will bring a welcome relief to many Iraqis trying to escape the bombs and shootings that have taken such a heavy toll on the country since the fall of Saddam.

"We are trying to make our country feel normal again. We insisted that the championship couldn't be delayed any further," said Basim al-Rubaie, vice-president of the Iraqi FA.

The start of the league follows closely on from Iraq's superb showing at the Athens Olympics when they reached the semi-finals of the soccer tournament, narrowly missing a medal.

"I've been waiting for this championship for such a long time," said Hasan Kathim. "Now I can watch my team play and take my mind off Iraq's troubles, even if it's only for 90 minutes."

Source: Reuters