BAGHDAD: As a seven-year-old in Baghdad, Mohamed Ali dreamed of becoming a goalkeeper – until a car bomb ripped off his left arm in central Tahrir Square.
The child was another victim of the sectarian bloodshed that raged in Iraq in the years following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“I was deprived of playing soccer,” he recalled of the traumatic 2007 event that also ended his stint on the Air Force Club’s junior soccer team in Baghdad.
Today, at the age of 22, Ali is a member of an all-amputee football team made up entirely of players who have lost arms or legs over the many years of war and unrest in Iraq.
“Creating this team brought me back to life,” he said. “It helped me regain my confidence.”
The team consists of about 30 players and has qualified for the World Amputee Cup, which will be held in Turkey at the end of 2022.
Its founder Mohamed al-Najjar was studying in England when he spotted a team of Portsmouth amputees and decided to repeat the experience.
Back in Iraq, he posted an ad on social media.
“The applications came in and we put the team together in August 2021,” recalls the 38-year-old lawyer.
Najjar’s right leg was amputated after he was injured in 2016 “while participating in the fight against [Daesh]”.
At the time, Najjar, like several of his teammates, was fighting with the pro-Iranian Hashed al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force that has since been integrated into Iraq’s regular armed forces.
He now meets with the group three times a week to train on one of the fields at the brand new Al Chaab complex in Baghdad.
One-legged athletes warm up on crutches while sprinting in the national team’s green jersey and then practice taking penalties.
The goalkeeper, whose left arm is amputated, intercepts the ball by blocking it with his stomach.
Before finding the team’s camaraderie, Najjar said “most of the players suffered from severe depression”.
“Some had even considered suicide because they had lost a limb and were previously professional players.
“But we overcame those psychological problems,” he said, adding that he was pleased that his players were now “posting their pictures with the team on social media”.
In the official competition, matches are played in teams of seven on fields measuring 60 by 40 meters (about 200 by 130 feet).
The goals are two meters high and five meters wide – smaller than the 2.4 by 7.3 meter goals used in traditional football.
“Dad, go train”
The Iraqi state offers financial aid to victims of attacks and fighting against militants. Players receive monthly allowances ranging from $400 to $700.
Most make ends meet as day laborers in the markets, Najjar said.
However, a major obstacle for the team is the lack of official recognition and thus the lack of funding from the Iraqi sports associations.
The Poland-based International Amputee Football Federation is not part of the International Paralympic Committee.
The Iraqi team therefore does not receive any government subsidies, said Aqil Hamid, the chairman of the parliamentary committee on disabled sports.
The team relies on donations from clubs for equipment and transport, Najjar said. There’s also occasional help from some hashed bodies.
“They helped us with a trip to Iran, they paid for the plane tickets,” Najjar said, adding that he hoped for “broader support”.
Another team member, Ali Kazim, lost his left leg to a car bomb in Baghdad in 2006, abruptly ending his professional soccer career with the Air Force Club.
“I couldn’t pursue my ambitions, I stayed at home,” said the 38-year-old.
Today, his four children are his biggest supporters.
“They’re the ones who pack my gym bag,” he said. “They tell me: ‘Dad, go train’. My morale has totally changed.”