In the evenings, Iraqis were glued to their television screens in cafes. Their istikanat of cardamom tea cold, forgotten under the billowing smoke of the thousandth cigarette of the night.
Mothers’ hands were raised in prayer in living rooms. In Mosul, Basra and the far reaches of exile, the hearts of the Iraqis beat faster at the chants of the Moroccans as The Atlas Lions of Walid Regragui ventured into hitherto unknown World Cup territories and conquered them in style.
SpainPortugal and Belgium were undone by Morocco and France by Tunisia. The “skimpySaudis, as The New York Times lexicon describes them, scored one of the finest goals of the tournament against a stunned Argentina, now crowned world champion over France.
This is how we will remember the World Cup: Palestinian flags in the stands and Arab and North African triumphs on the pitch.
Alas, a few hundred, a few thousand of those who would have cheered were missing.
Their eyes would sparkle as Sofyan Amrabat chased Kylian Mbappe down the left flank and won the ball with an impeccable tackle that sent the prodigy squirming behind, before orchestrating play for another attack into Les Bleus territory.
The missing are the children of Fallujah.
They are sleeping now. The soccer field where they would have imitated Achraf Hakimi and Yassine Bounou on chilly winter afternoons is their resting place. Their mothers won’t worry about their muddy tracksuits tomorrow. They don’t wear them.
Today the field is known as the Martyrs Cemetery. It’s where the residents of the once-besieged city buried the women and children slaughtered in repeated American raids to quell a furious uprising in the early years of the occupation. In Iraq, even playgrounds are now places for mourning. The war involved dousing Fallujah with depleted uranium and white phosphorus.
But the American brutality didn’t stop there. Twenty years and countless birth defects later, the US Navy christens one of its warships the USS Fallujah.
In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, the late Walter Benjamin wrote, “Whoever has come out victorious from battle participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who lie on the ground.” In this procession, wrote the revolutionary German philosopher, “the booty is carried.”
This is how the US Empire continues its war against Iraqis. Fallujah’s name, bleached in white phosphorus implanted in mothers’ wombs for generations, is also a spoil of war. “Under extraordinary circumstances,” reads one American empire statement explaining the decision to name a warship after Fallujah, “the Marines were victorious against a determined foe who enjoyed every advantage of defense in an urban area.”
Through this historical revisionism, the US has launched yet another attack on our dead. Benjamin had warned us, “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” The enemy has won.
What remains is the haunting absence of relatives, houses bombed to nothing and photographs burned along with the smiling faces. Instead, we were left with a deadly corrupt system of intersectarian camaraderie in theft by the unpunished war criminals of Downing Street and the Beltway.
Even football now promises to serve that system, which has trapped Iraqis in a state of war, a lucrative and stable anomaly. In January, the southern city of Basra hosts the Arabian Gulf Cup, a regional football tournament. It is a rare opportunity for Iraqis to see the national team that has brought them joy to play at home for so long.
“This is how the besieged play!” goes a 1990 song for the Lions of Mesopotamia, as the national soccer team of Iraq is known. At the time, we were subjected to “humanitarian” famine imposed by the United Nations, and Moroccan legend Mustapha Hadji gave us reasons to smile through pain with his performance at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Many years and World Cups later, an umbilical cord stretching from Baghdad to Cairo to Rabat bound us all together behind Morocco’s men in red, Arab and Amazigh as they rebelled against the wounds of old and new imperialism.
But in Basra, the sport will serve a different purpose: to give legitimacy to a system born of an imperial power that has repeatedly failed the people it claims to represent.
Young in recent years civilians in Basra were killed for protesting peacefully against an unlivable reality ruled by militiamen who make life and death decisions, strangling the economy in an environment that is irreparably humiliating.
As football plays in the southern city and politicians pose in the stands for cameramen, mothers will mourn the loss of sons and daughters sent to their graves early in the 2019 October Uprising. In living rooms and stadiums, their seats will remain empty, their voices will be missing. Thus, Iraq’s doomed existence is normalized through sportswashing.
While Iraqis’ homes are open to welcome their kin from all over the Arabian Peninsula, they are far from satisfied with local politics.
The emergence of a Coordination Framework government led by Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani does not indicate a break with a violent past. On the contrary, more than ever Iran-loyal factions and armed groups have tightened their grip on power.
As I read the daily news of my homeland from afar, the ghost of the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus visits me in Washington, DC. He whispers in my ears, “From there I come to you / It’s destruction.”
After 20 years in the arms of war, football will for once fail to bring smiles to the faces of the young women who give birth to deformed babies and then bury them in Fallujah, a city the US even of his name has been plundered Empire. For the mothers of dead youngsters in Basra, football is in a graveyard.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.