Pitch warfare

Football can be a force for unity

Iran and Iraq battled out an attritional stalemate, Lebanon succumbed to Syria's superior attacking prowess. Palestine was all over the shop. And the Jordanians? As ever they were stuck in the middle. This isn't a brief evaluation of politics in the Levant but the line-up for the 4th West Asian Football Championship, held in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The biannual tournament seemed to take Rinus Michel's declaration that football is war literally, pitching some of the region's most divided, politically unstable countries against each other.

Predictably, the six-team tournament experienced uniquely Middle Eastern obstacles. It was to take place in Beirut last year but was postponed due to the war with Israel. The opening fixtures then conjured two combustible derbies. Iran and Iraq ground out a goalless draw, while Syria beat Lebanon 1-0. The result didn't go down well with fans back in Lebanon. "They were unhappy with us," explains Paul Rustom, Lebanon's centre forward. "They said, 'you could have lost to anyone by 100 goals, but why did you have to lose to Syria?'"

For the Iraqis, Amman is as good as a home tournament. With as many as one million Iraqis living in Jordan, and with time on their hands - they are not allowed to work - the stadium has attracted thousands of patriotic fans such as Essam Ibraheem a 33-year-old Sunni sewing-machine salesman from Baghdad. "I've been here a year. I had to come here when my brother was kidnapped," he says as he waits with his wife and two kids for the start of Iraq's 1-0 victory over Palestine. "When we see our team we feel like it's home."

The Palestinians, on the other hand, were priced out of their game. Despite making up half of Jordan's population, most fans were outside, unable to pay the six dinars (£4.30) for a ticket. "We don't have oil like the Iraqis," snorts 23-year-old Salman al-Quaisi, looking for a way in. "The Palestinians [here] can't afford cigarettes. How are they going to buy a ticket?"

For the footballers the tournament is a point of defiance. In Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, the national football team represents a force, possibly the last force, for unity in their homeland. It's a miracle that some could even put a team together. Two Lebanese league players were killed in a car bombing in Beirut before the tournament, news that filtered through to Rustom and the rest of the team - drawn from Lebanon's Christian, Druze, Shia and Sunni communities - on their way to the airport. The Palestinians, too, have been affected by strife. "We have 13 players from Gaza and they are very worried and stressed," Mohammed Sabah, the national coach, told me before his team's 2-0 defeat to Iran. His team seems one of the few institutions not torn by conflict. "No one talks 'I am Fatah, I am Hamas'. Yes, some are members, but they are friends. If the people were like the Palestinian team there would be no problems."

Every Iraqi player in the squad has been touched by death or bad luck. Two days before the start of the tournament, the team's physio was killed in a car bombing in Baghdad. He was on the way to pick up his ticket to Amman. "I probably have the hardest job in the world as I have to deal with these boys with many problems," rues Jorvan Vieira, the Brazilian coach, before Iraq's 3-0 semi-final win against Syria. "We need to give the Iraqi people a good mirror. The division between Shia, Sunni or Kurd doesn't exist."

The tournament ends in the way it began: Iraq v Iran in the final. Close to 8,000 Iraqis swarm into the Amman International stadium, arguably the single biggest outpouring of Iraqi nationalist sentiment for three years, compared to just 20 Iranians. The noise is deafening as the Iraqis boo Iran's anthem. It doesn't help. Iraq go down 2-1 but the fans don't care. The majority stay behind to bang drums, salute their heroes and whistle before spilling out into the streets, chanting.

"Do you want to know what they are saying?" shouts Salif, a 16-year-old originally from Baghdad. "The Sunni and Shia are brothers. We will never sell Iraq."

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins