U.S. pickup teams take on Iraqis for soccer, basketball
Stars and Stripes June 26, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The score didn’t matter.
And that was a good thing, because the soccer game Tuesday between American troops assembled from the divisions around Baghdad and a second-tier local Iraqi club was a little lopsided.
OK, more than a little lopsided. The final score was 11-0, and it was the American team that didn’t find the net.
But again, the score didn’t matter. What did matter was that the Iraqis were playing soccer again in al-Sha’ab stadium, which was turned back to them by American troops who had been using it since entering the Iraqi capital.
“Basically, you had support units using the Olympic facilities,” said Lt. Col. Antonio Coleman, commander of the 510th Forward Support Battalion from Friedberg, Germany.
Coleman said the facilities have been used for a variety of purposes, including the billeting of some personnel. His unit was supposed to be the next to move into the facility, “but we found a home elsewhere.”
That allowed a series of facilities to be given back to the Iraqis.
On Monday, it was the Olympic pool. On Tuesday, the two soccer teams squared off in the stadium. On Wednesday, teams from the two countries played basketball. On Thursday, the tennis courts are to be turned over.
But it was all about soccer Tuesday. Soccer is as big in Iraq as it is in most of Europe. The soldiers’ opponent Tuesday was the al-Zawra’a club, one of the best-known in Iraq. The players were not from the top-level team, but rather from the second-level, made up of junior players.
Facing the Iraqis was an American team that had just about every disadvantage one can have in sports. The team had a only few practices and several team members didn’t join the team until the day of the game. Only four members of the squad had played for college teams, none Division I colleges.
Then, there was the heat: The Iraqi summer is enough to make most Americans cringe even while sitting in the shade.
Faced with a lack of uniforms, the soldiers turned to the local economy to buy shirts, socks and shoes. The shirts and socks were yellow and were paired with the black physical training shorts that each soldier has, resembling the Army colors.
As for the players, coach Sam Perrotta, the top enlisted soldier in the 510th, had 56 volunteers to choose from — mainly from the 1st Armored Division and 82nd Airborne Division. He pared the team down to 20 earlier Tuesday.
One of those making the team was Sgt. 1st Class Scott Fisher, an Army reservist with the 361st Psyops Company from Washington state.
“Any time I get a chance to play soccer, it’s great,” said Fisher, who still had a smile on his face after the game. “I think this is a tremendous opportunity for the coalition and the Iraqis to get to know each other better, spread a little goodwill and play a game of soccer.”
Fisher was plenty busy for half the game, taking over goalkeeping duties with the United States trailing 4-0 at halftime. By that time, most of the crowd — U.S. soldiers from a handful of disparate units — had laughingly turned against the Americans. For security reasons, there were only a handful of Iraqis in a stadium that would fit tens of thousands for big games.
But several soldiers started cheering for the locals when they realized who the winners were likely to be.
Pfc. Jennifer Hunt, Spc. Karena Hall and Sgt. Timika Butchee weren’t among them, though.
“We’re still going to support them,” they all said in unison when asked before the game what they’d do if the Americans started losing. Of course, all three are members of the 510th and their sergeant major was coaching the team.
“This is just for morale and fun,” Hall said.
But it had a little history thrown in, as well.
“These guys are going to be able to talk about this for as long as God lets them live on this Earth,” Perrotta said of his team.