They lost an arm or a leg in the war against the jihadists or in one of the attacks that bled Iraq. But thanks to an amputee football team, these men heal the wounds of the soul by teasing the ball.
Bringing together some thirty players, the team has qualified for the Amputee Football World Cup, to be held in Turkey at the end of 2022.
Its founder, Mohamed al-Najjar, discovered a team of amputees in Portsmouth (south) while studying in England and decided to reproduce the experience. Back in Iraq, he places an ad on social media.
“Membership applications poured in and we formed the team in August 2021,” recalls the 38-year-old attorney.
His right leg was amputated, he was injured in 2016 “while participating in the fight against the Islamic State group”.
At the time, Mr Najjar – like several of his teammates – fought within Hachd al-Chaabi, former pro-Iranian paramilitaries now integrated into the regular armed forces and playing a vital political role.
Three times a week he meets with the group to train on one of the fields of the brand new Al-Chaab complex in Baghdad.
– “Severe depression” –
Leaning on their crutches, the one-legged players in the national team’s green jersey sprint. After the warm-ups, penalty shootouts are organized. The goalkeeper, amputated of the left arm, intercepts the ball by blocking it against his stomach.
Placed against a couch, a prosthetic leg awaits its owner.
Before the team’s debut, “most of the players suffered from severe depression,” Najjar said. “Some had even considered suicide because they had lost a limb and they were professional players,” added the Petroleum Ministry official.
“But we have overcome these psychological problems,” he assures, delighted to see his players “post their photos with the team on social networks”.
In official competitions, matches are played between teams of seven on fields measuring 60 by 40 meters (traditional football).
Mohamed Ali dreamed of becoming a goalkeeper. In 2007, in the midst of a sectarian war, he lost his left arm in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. He was seven years old.
At that time, he played goalkeeper in the youth team of the Air Force Club, a structure in the capital financed by the military institution.
“I wasn’t allowed to play football,” said the 22-year-old. “Creating this team brought me back to life,” he adds. “She helped me regain my confidence.”
– “Daddy, go practice!” †
In a country where the US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 ushered in a phase of bloody violence, the state is providing financial aid to the victims of attacks and fighting against jihadists.
Thus, the players receive monthly fees that vary between $400 and $700. Most make ends meet by working as day laborers in the markets, Najjar said.
For the team, a major obstacle remains: the lack of recognition – and therefore funding – of Iraqi sports organizations.
The International Amputee Football Federation, based in Poland, is not part of the International Paralympic Committee. The Iraqi team cannot therefore receive government subsidies, admits Akil Hamid, the head of the parliamentary committee on the disabled.
The team depends on donations from associations for materials and transport, explains Mr. Najjar out. There is also occasional help from certain cases of Hachd al-Chaabi.
“They helped us for a trip to Iran, they arranged the plane tickets,” said Mr. Najjar, hoping for “wider support”.
The 2006 car bomb explosion in Baghdad brought an abrupt end to Ali Kazim’s professional football career. He lost his left leg and left the Air Force Club.
“I couldn’t pursue my ambitions, I stayed at home,” admits the 38-year-old.
But today his four children are his biggest supporters. “They’re the ones preparing my gym bag, they tell me +Daddy, go work out!+” he says. “My morale has totally changed.”