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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

Bollywood in their heart, war-torn Iraq aim heroic show in FIFA U-17 World Cup

Football unifies our people and we will try to bring joy again, says Saif Khalid, who will lead Iraq at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

fifa-u17-world-cup-2017 Updated: Oct 07, 2017 14:56 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Iraq will take on Mexico in their FIFA U-17 World Cup opener on Sunday.
Iraq will take on Mexico in their FIFA U-17 World Cup opener on Sunday.(AFC/FIFA)

The thing about generalisations is that they are, at best, half-truths.

So it was during the 2014 FIFA World Cup when an attendant at a restaurant in Belo Horizonte asked Hindustan Times whether rape was India’s biggest problem.

Ditto on Friday evening. When Iraq’s FIFA U-17 World Cup skipper Saif Khalid and top striker Mohammed Dawood stepped up to speak to the media, expectations were that the conversation would be about how important football was in a country where sectarian and religious strife became the new normal after a tyrant was overthrown.

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup: Iraq look to survive ‘group of death’ against the odds

What they got was two confident young men speaking about football and Bollywood in equal measure and the awareness that in India, cricket rules.

Saif Ali Khan, Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan), Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan were names Khalid reeled off with as much ease he would talking about his teammates that won the Asian Under-16 Championships in Goa last year. Asked to name the last film he saw, Khalid said ‘Raees’.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan is among the favourite of the Iraq team players taking part in the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan is among the favourite of the Iraq team players taking part in the FIFA U-17 World Cup. ( AFP )

Perhaps aware that his interviewers were somewhat surprised, Khalid, speaking through an interpreter, said there is a television channel in Iraq that shows Hindi films.

Beyond Bollywood, Khalid said that despite everything, football remains the No.1 sport in Iraq and they are aware of how the country’s hopes are riding on them.

READ | FIFA U-17 World Cup: ‘India must not get overawed by their opponents reputation’

“Football has unified the people of Iraq and we want to do that again through our performance. We will do our best to spread joy to our people back home where the situation is improving,” he said, one day after reports that the last Islamic State stronghold has been regained.

Khalid is the heart of this team, pulling strings in the midfield. And like Dawood, he draws inspiration from the Iraq senior national team that stunned Asia by winning the Asian Cup.

Dawood is on The Guardian’s list of top footballers to watch out for. “It is flattering to be talked about in such terms,” said the player whose six goals last year in Goa helped Iraq become the best Under-16 team in Asia.

“But if I have scored those goals, it was because of the help I got from the coaching staff and my teammates,” he said.

READ | Why FIFA U-17 World Cup ties at Delhi’s Nehru Stadium were a nightmare

Giving another example of life beyond strife, Dawood said the team held a preparatory camp in Iraq for 45 days. The team that won the Asian Cup was based in Jordan.

“Our coaching staff have done their best to prepare us mentally and technically for this tournament,” said Dawood, whose hero is Younis Mahmoud, the man who scored the match-winner in the 2007 Asian Cup final against Saudi Arabia.

Iraq open against former champions Mexico but Dawood said “we will take the field as equals”. Having played in India last year, they might even adjust better to the humidity.

First Published: Oct 07, 2017 14:40 IST