Friday, August 3, 2007

Baghdad Welcomes Weeping Soccer Stars

Weeping tears of joy and pride, Iraq's soccer champions arrived home on Friday to celebrate the Asian Cup victory that inspired their nation, but heavy security meant few Baghdadis were able to join the party.

"There is no happier moment," goalkeeper Noor Sabri told Iraq state television, choking back tears as other players behind him sobbed.

"I don't know what to say. All I can say is congratulations to the mothers of the martyrs," he said, paying tribute to victims of his country's conflict.

Player Ali Rahima said: "We hope that this unity will not be only for football. We hope everybody will unite to bring happiness to the Iraqi people."

After nightfall the team was driven to the heavily fortified "green zone" government and diplomatic compound, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki kissed each player on both cheeks and placed rings of flowers around their necks.

They were greeted inside the walled compound by a marching band and a throng of government officials, before being ushered in to the ceremony with Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.

"You have brought the smile back to the lips of Iraq," Maliki said. "You are an example of our unity."

Officials chanted and clapped, and a poet in robes took a microphone to shout verses in the team's honor.

The players passed the trophy they had won to a woman whose son was killed by a suicide bomber while celebrating the team's semi-final victory last week. She passed the trophy on to the prime minister and the president.

Earlier, hundreds of Iraqis had managed to negotiate a series of security checkpoints in blistering summer heat to reach the airport, hoping for a glimpse of their heroes.

"People have been dancing and chanting and singing all day. We haven't gotten tired," a government employee who was at the airport said shortly before the team arrived.

But most of the city remained locked down in a weekly curfew for the Muslim day of prayer. The majority of Iraqis would see the players only on television.
Some of the players -- including captain Younis Mahmoud who scored the goal that clinched the championship -- stayed away, citing other commitments or the danger of coming home.

"It's a shame that this team brought us the happiness of our lives, and we still cannot celebrate them properly," said Baghdad resident Ammar Hussein, 33. He said he did not dare take to the streets for safety reasons.

The team, nicknamed the Lions of Mesopotamia, triggered nationwide euphoria with their against-the-odds victory last Sunday. After the final whistle in their 1-0 defeat of heavily favoured Saudi Arabia, at least seven people were killed by stray bullets as joyous Iraqis fired rifles into the air.

Iraqis have hailed the team -- a snapshot of the country's religious sects and ethnic groups -- as proof Iraq could overcome the divisions that have led to bloodshed.

Newspapers and TV commentators contrasted the players with the country's feuding and ineffective politicians.

(Thanks to Mussab Al-Khairalla of Reuters for this report.)

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