HABBANIYAH, Iraq --
Columns of dust rise from a pebble-covered expanse of sand as Iraqi men weave, sprint and maneuver a soccer ball to the end of the pitch toward a netted goal, manned by a lone goal keeper.
Only a year ago, this level of organization in a soccer game, called football in Iraq and everywhere else outside of the United States, would have been anything but ordinary in this small corner of Anbar Province, Iraq, called Habbaniyah. It was once the hiding place and terror grounds of an insurgency. Now, this area is an example for the rest of Iraq, and the soccer game is an Iraqi way to blow off steam after a hard day’s work.
Approximately 20 teams from the communities around the Habbaniyah area, which is about nine miles west of Fallujah, have created a local soccer league, and recently begun competing in their first soccer season here since spring, 2003.
The league is now a reality because of the peace that has spread throughout the region due to the increased capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces, along with the guidance and aid of Coalition Forces.
“We work hard to make things safe in this area,” said Omar Mohammed, an Iraqi policeman working out of a combined Marine and IP station. “We do it for the future of my family and friends. I do it for Iraq. It is no longer, ‘I am Muslim,’ ‘I am Christian,’ ‘I am Sunni,’ ‘I am Shia.’ It is, ‘I am Iraqi.’”
Iraq’s love of football is no longer something to be shared exclusively over piping hot, sugary chai in front of a television. It is now played in the open and for fun, said Kemal Musceff, a 26-year-old centerfielder for the Jimaylan football team.
“This is an old field. We used to play on this field 20 years ago, but in the past we couldn’t play here because terrorists were in this area,” said Musceff, as he wiped the sweat from his face with his blue and white shirt. “Now, it’s safe, and we can play and enjoy something we as a country love.”
The players in the league come from the surrounding area where they all contribute to their community. They hold jobs ranging from Iraqi Security Forces personnel, to local construction workers or farmers. It doesn’t matter how old they are either, said Musceff.
“No matter if you are 14 or 45, you just have to be very good at football,” said Musceff with a wide smile and a thumbs-up.
They have all come together as a whole, in much the same way as they have come together to secure a brighter future in their communities, said Lance Cpl. Will S. James, a squad leader in third platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6.
“It’s good to see that they are providing enough security on their own, so that their community is able to do something like this,” said the 22-year-old National City, Calif. native. “They really have their stuff together. This year it’s a lot better because people here are a lot more proactive about protecting their community. This year they let us help them and teach them. Even the guy standing guard has quite a lot of interaction with the people. I definitely know more Arabic this year, just because we work with these people so much.”
James, a 2005 Mar Vista High School graduate, said the Marines patrolled to the soccer game, not to provide security or to investigate any suspicious activity, but to attend and see how their Iraqi friends were doing.
“We patrolled there, setup our own personal security and talked to the people on the sideline,” said James. “Everybody in the squad knows quite a few of these guys. I was talking to the guy I knew … how (he) thought the recent combined medical engagment went, and made small talk about the Iraqi professional league. They are definitely happy about their pro league. You know, Saddam’s brother used to torture the soccer players and their families if they lost. Now that Saddam is gone, the team is winning. They won the Asia Cup.”
The game was getting very heated and the two teams were neck and neck for a win when halftime was called. They separated and headed to their benches, where the coaches gave pep talks and criticism. It was just like a soccer game in any other country, but here in Iraq, it meant so much more.