Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Football's Impact on Iraq

This is an article by Steven Wells printed in today's Guardian, the wonderful newspaper from England which in my opinion also boasts one of the best football websites around.

It's about football being used as a weapon in the war on terror. As the byline says, The battle for hearts and minds has taken on a sporting dimension, but the US army has found soccer is more than just a load of balls.

It's not the nicest piece in the world, but it states the fact of the matter: football is being used as propaganda in the war on terror. But it's not really working.

Have a read and see how impactful football can be in people's daily lives, war or otherwise.

Iraqis love soccer. Just how much they love soccer stunned some US troops. "Forget bowl season, the World Series, March Madness, and the Super Bowl, they don't care," wrote Michael, a pro-war soldier blogger in 2005. "They have more passion for the game of soccer than we ever thought of having for [American] football or baseball... In every mission I've been on, I've never once failed to witness a game of soccer."

Then Mike had a great idea. The US military should hand out soccer balls. Thousands of soccer balls. Soccer balls with names of US corporations or the faces of wanted terrorists on them. "Imagine thousands of Iraqi kids kicking around a ball with [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi's likeness on it. That would be a beautiful sight."

But Mike - a self-described "big dreamer" - didn't stop there. If soccer balls could win ordinary Iraqis over to freedom and democracy, then why not to Title IX style sports feminism as well?

"We could start an Iraqi women's soccer movement. Why not? I want to be able to give a soccer ball to that shy little girl standing behind the boys, watching her angelic face become a bright shining light as I reach over the boy's heads to place a ball into her hands. Of course there will be so many balls that the boys standing in front of her will have already received one. Maybe one day they can field an Iraqi women's Olympic soccer team. They could make their entrance onto the world stage at the 2012 Summer Olympics in New York City."

We need now to skip quickly over the inconvenient fact that women's soccer actually flourished under Saddam Hussein (and that the 2012 Games were awarded to London). And that women's games were shown regularly on Iraqi TV. "No one thinks that sports are just for men", Nadia Yasser, the captain of the Iraqi women's soccer team, told the New York Times in 2002 a year before the invasion and occupation.

Anyway, blogger Mike then googled "operation soccer ball" and - well blow me down - was amazed to discover that (kinda like at the end of the song Tie A Yellow Ribbon) hundreds of his fellow grunts had already had exactly the same idea.

After all, if the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, could not the War in Iraq be saved on the soccer fields of Baghdad? Give them balls - the theory ran - and their hearts and minds will follow.

As a result there are now probably more US-donated soccer balls in Iraq than there are depleted uranium shells - and that's a hell of a lot. The Pentagon was quick to jump on the soccer bandwagon. There are countless Department of Defense press releases and armed-forces newspaper articles, all written in a relentlessly upbeat Catch 22-speak in which victory is always and endlessly just one free soccer ball away.

On YouTube you can watch: troops with mad skills banging balls about with Iraqi urchins. Troops slinging balls out of choppers, and handing out balls to thrilled children. You can also read about troops handing over out-of-date Ipswich Town shirts to obviously delighted villagers.

Soccer even seems to have been integrated into the basic training of some units. "Our marines have to be able to be aggressive and hostile one moment and the next moment be able to play soccer with the kids on the street," said Lt. Gen James Conway, commander of the US Marines' First Expeditionary Force in 2006. Curiously those war-supporting neo-con wingnuts who'd previously bashed soccer as foreign, un-American and socialist, noticeably failed to condemn this soccerfication on the US war effort. Still, it must rankle with the die-hards.

The Greeks and Romans left us with athletics, boxing, wrestling and the Olympics. The British Empire gave the world cricket, basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, competitive skiing and all the footballs. But the new American empire - despite dominating world culture in so many other ways - looks likely to leave as its sporting legacy the square root of bugger-all.

The US attempts to use soccer have met with mixed results. And it's not just the fact that every single time an Iraqi soccer player sees a microphone, they use it to condemn the US occupation, including the captain Younis Mahmoud.

A blogger for recently witnessed a ball giveaway that turned sourin Fallujah.

In Afghanistan donated balls caused outrage when it was discovered they were emblazoned with a quote from the Qur'an contained in the Saudi flag.

And in an article published on in February, a veteran described how a 2004 attempt to hand out balls went awry when it was discovered that all the balls were deflated. The troops were ordered to hand the balls out anyway, the officer in charge reasoning that recipients should be damn grateful to be getting any balls at all. Unfortunately, the Iraqis were not terribly impressed with the gesture. "They were like, 'What are you doing? What are we supposed to do with this?'" says Garett Reppenhagen. "Kids were wearing these soccer balls as hats. They were kicking them around. They were in trees. They were floating in canals. They were everywhere. There were so many soccer balls."

"Wow" wrote one reader. "Talk about a sorry metaphor for the whole stupid war."