REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Iraqi Soccer Season Evokes Bittersweet Emotions

It was supposed to be a double-header at Al-Shaab, Iraq's 60,000-seat stadium. The only problem -- and there is always a problem -- was that Iraqis were barred from attending the game.

The government was worried that a large crowd would be an irresistible target for insurgent bombs, so they kept the crowds away and had the game broadcast on local television.

We got to the stadium around 11 a.m. The first game had been canceled because a bombing earlier in the week had injured two players from the team called Industry.

The Iraqi Soccer League has three divisions: north, central and south. Most of the teams are named after government ministries that support the individual clubs. Today's double-header was supposed to have the Air Force facing the Industry and the Army facing the Police. Because of the bombing, only the Police and the Army would take the field.

It was a tough day for Iraq soccer. For all the excitement of getting back on the pitch, there was also the realization that any one of these players could just as easily be lying in a hospital bed.

Army's coach, Ali Hamoud, has coached the team since 1989 and played for it for 12 seasons before that. His 50-year-old face is creased with the worry lines of a man who has watched a lot of penalty kicks.

In the last two months Hamoud's brother and cousin were killed in what he believes were sectarian-related murders. When I asked him which sect his brother belonged to he said, "I feel stupid answering the question, but he was Shia." Hamoud seemed to be in disbelief that his brother's religion could actually have gotten him killed.

But he has a game to get to. Life and death mix easily in Iraq.

His team wolfs down lamb sandwiches and soft drinks and then heads to the stadium. Small choppers with strapped-in snipers leaning out through open doors buzz around perilously close to the stadium. The stands are empty, but some hard-core fans eventually work their way in.

Two fixtures of Iraqi soccer make it: Qaddouri and Mehdi. They are at every game. They are very loud, they drape themselves in the Iraqi flag and they cheer incessantly. There was even a 6-year-old boy, Jaffar, who sat alone in a sea of empty red seats, craning his neck to see above all the people on the sidelines. He was rooting for the Police.

The rest of the crowd was made up of police and fire and emergency services personnel, who had nothing to do since only a handful of fans were at the game.

The match got under way around 2:30 p.m. The Army has 27 players and is a young team. The Police will be tough opponents. They have several players on the Iraqi National and Olympic teams while the Army has none.

Several Army players are injured during the match and need to be carried off on stretchers. It was a long day for the Army. They lost 3-0.

During the game one of our local photographers visited Ahmed Nasser, one of the injured players from the Industry. He is 20 years old. He is in very bad shape. It is hard to look at him and see the aspiring soccer star he was just days ago.

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