Why Iraq’s Best-Loved Athlete Can’t Go Home

He may be the most beloved man in Iraq right now. Younis Mahmoud, the Iraqi soccer team captain who scored the winning goal in Iraq’s final win over Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup, triggering mass jubilation in his tortured country, is a symbol of Iraqi nationhood.

Mahmoud, a Sunni Muslim on a majority Shiite team, scored on a pass last Sunday from Mulla Mohammed, the team’s only Kurdish player, for a 1-0 victory. I can only imagine how moving that was to the secular Baathists, the Sadrist nationalists, and others worried about civil war provoked by the invasion, or partition as openly suggested by some U.S. politicians like Joe Biden. All kinds of people are saying that Iraqis should learn from the soccer team and unite to achieve national goals. Praise for the team vents contempt for the corruption and lethargy of the compromised political class.

But does Mahmoud plan to head home and bask in his country’s affection? No, he’ll return to his home in Qatar where he plays for a local team.

“I don’t want the Iraqi people to be angry with me,” he told AP, noting that a bomb killed Iraqis celebrating the teams’ win over South Korea last week. The dead included a boy. “His mother said when her child was killed in front of her, she didn’t cry. She said, ‘I present my son as a sacrifice for the national team.’ Then we had to win.” Mahmoud is perhaps disturbed that anyone would attack a group of soccer fans celebrating a victory. But he also expresses fear towards those ruling Iraq.

One of the team captain’s closest friends has been arrested during the occupation, “and for one year neither me nor his family knew where he is.” Mahmoud has no confidence about his own security in Iraq, even as it unites in pride over his athletic achievement. He’s afraid he’ll be killed if he goes back, and makes it clear where he places the blame for the catastrophe.

“I want America to go out,” he declares. “Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn’t invade Iraq and hopefully it will be over soon.”

I doubt his reputation in Iraq will suffer from the report of those remarks.

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Other Iraqi soccer-players’ quotes from the past

Olympic team midfielder Salih Sadir, responding in Athens in August 2004 to Bush’s claim that Iraq wouldn’t be able to participate in the games had he not “liberated” their country tells Sports Illustrated: “Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign. . . . He can find another way to advertise himself. . . .We don’t wish for the presence of the Americans in our country. We want them to go away.”

Star player Ahmed Manajid, Sunni from Fallujah, after declaring that if he weren’t playing soccer in Athens he would “for sure” be fighting alongside his people: “I want to defend my home. If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that mean they are terrorists? Everyone [in Fallujah] has been labeled a terrorist. These are all lies. Fallujah people are some of the best people in Iraq. . . How will [Bush] meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes.”

Team coach Adnan Hamad stressed, “My problems are not with the American people. . . They are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything. . . The American army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the stadium and there are shootings on the road?”

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu