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Local Soccer Team Unites Iraqis

Initiative reflects the love of the game that's felt so strongly in their homeland

It's a hand-stitched No. 5 soccer ball - the type professionals use - that his community soccer team plays with. Midfielder Ali Alkassab turns over the ball to show off its imprimatur.

He can imitate Pelé and Maradona, but he hasn't always played with a ball like this. He recalls that his first soccer ball as a child in his native Iraq was a flattened soft-drink can.

Fellow Iraqi Montrealer Salam El-Mousawi, who coaches the local community team, says his father's generation even used slaughtered goats' bladders as balls. Iraqis are so keen on soccer, he says, they'll play with anything "as long as it rolls."

The members of Babylon, a team composed primarily of Iraqi Montrealers.

So it's no small joy to them that on July 13, the Iraqi national team played its first home soccer match in Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"The Shaab stadium has a seating capacity of 45,000, but there were 65,000 people that day," El-Mousawi said.

The national team played an earlier match in northern Iraq on July 10. The Iraqis won both matches, lifting the whole country into a celebratory mood despite the unabated violence.

"What soccer has done for Iraqis, politicians and other countries haven't," said Omar Zaky, an engineering student who switches between goalie and attacker in the Montreal community team.

According to El-Mousawi, soccer has become even more important to Iraqis since the war.

"Soccer is the only enjoyment they have," he explained. "It gives them hope and unifies them."

Zaky jokes about how soccer distracts even the insurgents.

"When a soccer match is on, the bombers go watch TV," he said.

El-Mousawi and Alkassab are Shiites and Zaky is a Sunni. In Iraq's communal powder keg, they might have been fighting each other, but on the soccer field the only thing they care about is bending the ball.

According to El-Mousawi, he and a group of Iraqi friends decided to start a community soccer team in Montreal because they wanted something that would give them a good image.

"We wanted to present a nice, peaceful picture of Iraqis," he said. "This was the purest way to go."

The team won the West Island Industrial League tournament in Montreal last winter. El-Mousawi wants the team to grow, but finances are a problem. For the moment, team members are students or amateurs with day jobs.

"We pay for everything ourselves," he said. "We have no sponsors."

They chose the name Babylon for the team because the reference has the same unifying power as soccer.

"Babylon refers to one of the oldest civilizations in the world and every Iraqi is proud of it," El-Mousawi said.

The Babylon team has even had Kurdish players in the past. According to El-Mousawi, the Iraqi national team is as diverse. His all-time favourite player, Ammo Baba (Emmanuel Baba Dawud), who became one of Iraq's most revered coaches, was Christian.

"Ammo Baba had family in North America, but he never wanted to leave Iraq. He vowed to die there," El-Mousawi said of the Iraqi soccer legend, who passed away this year.

Ammo Baba is buried at the Shaab stadium in Baghdad.

Alkassab's favourite player is Hawar Mullah Mohammed, a Kurd. Mohammed was the much idolized hero of Iraq's 2007 Asian Cup victory.

In the last decade, winning the Asian Cup has been one of the high points in a country ravaged by Saddam Hussein's tyranny, economic sanctions and war.

Zaky recollects how jubilant the Iraqi community in Montreal was after watching the match.

"We all went out for a meal and then went to the Old Port and Mount Royal to celebrate," he said. "It was a parade."

Ali Al-Kassab (right) of team Babylon competes at the Catalogna Soccerplexe in Lachine.

Soccer, it appears, not only unifies the country but also brings families together in front of their television sets. Alkassab says Iraqi women, even if they rarely play soccer, are as avid spectators as the men.

"When there's a match, everybody watches," he said. "It's the culture."

And Iraqi boys pick up the game quickly. El-Mousawi's two young boys have already taken to kicking the ball around. Sometimes they break things in the house, but far from getting angry, El-Mousawi says he joins them.

"It's our heritage," he explained.

Alkassab maintains the game is so popular in Iraq because of its simplicity.

"All you need is a ball," he said. "In Iraq, we sometimes even play barefoot."

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