by Magnus Bernhardsson

In what may be the most incredible Cinderella victory in the history of sports, the Iraqi national soccer team recently defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 to win the 2007 Asian Cup. From a pure sports point of view, the odds that the Iraqi team had to beat were considerable. Given the impossible political and social conditions in Iraq, the victory is indeed mind-boggling. Further, the success of the Iraqi national team was a much needed “feel-good” story after a constant barrage of horrible news from Iraq the last four years. So what is the political significance of this triumph and what are its possible implications for the future of Iraq?

There have been moments in the past ten years when people believed that the game of soccer could potentially have lasting political effects. For example, during the 1998 World Cup in France, the United States and Iran played each other in the first round. The two countries had not had any diplomatic contacts since the 1979 revolution and had routinely demonized each other (In Iran, the United States is often called “Shaytan-i buzurg” or “The Great Satan”). So when the two captains shook hands prior to the match and both teams played a clean, crisp match (that ended with a 2-1 Iranian victory), people speculated that perhaps soccer could lay the foundation for increased political relations. Would soccer facilitate a rapprochement between the two countries in a similar way that table tennis “ping-pong diplomacy” supposedly had in alleviating the tensions between China and the United States in the 1970s? However, the game was not the breakthrough that people anticipated. Today, the relations between the two countries are similar, even worse, than they were in 1998 and there are few indications that the situation is going to change in the short or long run.

At a time when the media emphasizes Iraq’s sectarian differences, the Iraqi national team was essentially a Benetton ad for Iraq’’s cultural diversity. The team included players from many of the main ethnic groups who instead of focusing on their differences played together as a team towards a common goal.

In general, foreign observers tend to overestimate the internal cleavages in Iraqi society and underestimate the power of Iraqi nationalism. Iraqis tend to have a strong sense of national identity and are proud of their world-renowned cultural heritage and accomplishments. Though the wars, trials, and tribulations have certainly put considerable stress on the nation, it is also an experience that Iraqis commonly share. When the Iraqi team was playing, it struck a chord among Iraqis that the spirit of the nation is unique and that if given the opportunity to play on a same level field as everybody else it is destined for greatness. Like Cinderella in the famous fairy tale, Iraqis feel and experience that their nation has been held hostage to suffer in an unjust situation by callous, evil stepmothers and ugly stepsisters. For the last 27 years, Iraqis have experienced one war after another and been isolated from the international community. And just like in the story, the team left the unjust situation to attend a “ball” only to return back to the real politic of misery.

The fairy tale, of course, ends well with the prince arriving – slipper in hand –and finding Cinderella, restoring justice so they can live happily ever after. The Iraqi national soccer team is not going to solve any of Iraq’’s serious problems and there is no prince in shining armor waiting in or on the wings. The situation on the ground is far too serious and requires long-range and far-reaching resolutions, based on reality rather than romantic fantasy. However, its international victory and the massive celebrations and jubilation indicate that there is something that connects all Iraqis. Iraqis tend to be committed to the idea of Iraq, even if they differ on what such an Iraq means. The victory on the field highlighted that if given the chance and opportunity, as well as freedom from outside intervention, Iraq could be a competitive and compelling player on the world stage.

Prof. Magnus Bernhardsson teaches history at Williams College.