Use sports as a bridge to a better tomorrowLittle did we know that a recent soccer friendly against the Iraqi Olympic team would take on much more meaning than a simple soccer match.
The message that the game carried went far beyond the invisible wall that separates the two countries. And I am beginning to think that it may have saved the lives of the seven Koreans who were kidnapped by militant Iraqis and then released several days ago.
That, and the visit by old Iraqi soccer players who played against us a long time ago in Iraq certainly had a positive effect.
The Korean soldiers belonging to the Zayituun unit, which is scheduled to be sent to Iraq, cheered wildly for the Iraqis, and the players thanked them after the game.
They went back home and must have told someone. And that someone must have told the people who were holding the Koreans hostages. I truly believe that’s what happened. I really do. Whoever kidnapped those Koreans had absolutely nothing to lose by killing them.
There weren’t any political considerations to weigh. If there had been any, killing them would have been the logical choice, in order to stir up public opinion and give us cold feet. It was a friendly (or somewhat friendly) attitude toward Korea that was at work. Call me crazy, but that’s my take.
I don’t know much about Islamic culture. What little I know has come straight from the tube, which tells you something. But what I do know is that these people who live in a nation that has just opened its eyes to democracy and freedom need our help badly. Whether that requires sending military forces to help bring stability to the region, or something else.
There is money set aside to build basic infrastructure in Iraq, such as the water sewage system. The money should also be spent on building up the country’s soccer stadiums and sports facilities.
On TV, I have seen Iraqi athletes practicing with nothing but their bare hands. Iraqi soccer officials admitted that the sole soccer stadium where the national team practices needs some repairs as well.
We all know how athletes under Saddam’s iron rule were tortured when they failed to deliver. Soccer players were punished by being forced to play with balls made out of cement.
These brave men are now free, but they need a playing field and I think giving one to them would really help to establish a nucleus of good things to come.
Setting up checkpoints is one thing. Set up a stadium with facilities that make a night game possible, and you have something that can’t be easily destroyed.
These people are suffering, and it will take considerable time before they can lead a stable life. Giving them a place where they can release their tension and frustration in a good way is essential.
I can hardly imagine, even if it was built with foreign help, that a militant cleric would order the destruction of a stadium in which the Iraqi people find some sort of a home. Play a game there and you may find out many things that they would not tell you normally.
Nation building in Iraq is no picnic and sacrifices will be high. But Japan, Germany and even our own country should serve as a good example. The prize is worth the sacrifices.
One hundred soccer balls were donated to the Iraqi team at the end of the game. Those soccer balls carry a very strong message. Sometimes that message can be stronger than bullets.
by Brian Lee