As a seven-year-old boy in Baghdad, Mohamed Ali dreamed of becoming a goalkeeper until a car bomb in central Tahrir Square blew off his left arm.
The child was another victim of the sectarian bloodshed that raged through Iraq in the years following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“I was deprived of the opportunity to play football,” he said, recalling the traumatic event in 2007 that also ended his tenure with the Air Force youth football team in Baghdad.
Today, at the age of 22, Ali is a member of a football team made up entirely of players who have lost arms or legs in years of war and unrest in Iraq.
“Building this team brought me back to life,” he said. “It helped me regain my confidence.”
The team has about 30 players and has qualified for the Amputee Football World Cup to be held in Turkey at the end of 2022.
Its founder Mohamed al-Najjar was studying in England when he discovered a group of amputees in Portsmouth and decided to repeat the experience.
After returning to Iraq, he posted an ad on social media.
“Application poured in, and in August 2021 we formed a team,” recalls the 38-year-old lawyer.
– “Severe depression” –
Najjar’s right leg was amputated after he was injured in 2016 “while participating in the fight against the Islamic State group.”
At the time, Najjar, like several of his teammates, was fighting for the pro-Iranian group Hashed al-Shaabi, a paramilitary group that has since been integrated into Iraq’s regular forces.
He now meets with the group three times a week to train on one of the fields of the brand new Al Chaab compound in Baghdad.
Using crutches, the one-legged players warm up with a run in the green jersey of the national team, and then work out the penalties.
A goalkeeper with an amputated left arm intercepts the ball by blocking it with his stomach.
According to Najjar, before they discovered the team’s camaraderie, “most of the players were suffering from severe depression.”
“Some even considered suicide because they lost a limb and they used to be professional players.
“But we’ve overcome those psychological issues,” he said, adding that he’s pleased to see his players now “posting pictures of themselves with the team on social media.”
In official competition, matches are played in teams of seven on fields measuring 60 by 40 meters (about 200 by 130 feet).
The goal, two meters high and five meters wide, is smaller than the 2.4 by 7.3 meters used in traditional football.
– “Daddy, go by train” –
The Iraqi State is offering financial assistance to victims of attacks and fighting against jihadists. Players receive a monthly allowance ranging from $400 to $700.
According to Najjar, most make ends meet by working as day laborers in the markets.
But the main obstacle for the team is the lack of official recognition and, therefore, funding from Iraqi sports organizations.
Poland-based International Amputee Football Federation is not part of the International Paralympic Committee.
Thus, the Iraqi team does not receive government subsidies, said Akil Hamid, head of the parliamentary committee on sports for people with disabilities.
For equipment and transport, the team depends on donations from associations, Najjar said. Sometimes some Hashed bodies also help.
“They helped us with the trip to Iran, paid for the plane tickets,” Najjar said, adding that he hoped for “greater support.”
Another member of the team, Ali Kazim, lost his left leg in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad in 2006, which brought his professional football career to an abrupt end with the Air Force club.
“I couldn’t realize my ambitions, I stayed at home,” said the 38-year-old.
Today, his four children are his biggest supporters.
“They are the ones who pack my duffel bag,” he said. “They tell me: “Dad, go train.” My morale has completely changed.”
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