Supporters flock to first post-Saddam soccer match

Saturday, May 17, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein is gone. And Rad Hamoudi is back.

A near-capacity crowd turned out Friday to see the first soccer match since the downfall of Saddam and to cheer Hamoudi -- Iraq's greatest star and long considered one of the Arab world's best goalies, fresh from years in exile.

"This is a happy day, a new day for Iraq and Iraqi soccer," said Hamoudi, who captained the 1986 national World Cup squad before he was forced to flee to Jordan to escape Saddam's regime.

Now in his 40s, Hamoudi is helping reorganize Iraq's soccer federation and prepare it for international play -- including qualifying games for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

"That's why today's game is so important," he said. "It shows the world that we will be able to take part in that competition."

Building morale

Still, Friday's exhibition game had as much to do with inspiring morale as warming up the teams. "Welcome back, Judge!" fans shouted at Hamoudi, using his nickname and clearly thrilled to see him.

The boisterous crowd beat drums and blew horns. Many waved the flags of their favorite team: blue and white for al-Zawra, and green for al-Shurta -- or Police -- the great goalie's former team.

At halftime, Iraqi athletes, including one woman, entertained the audience with a taekwondo demonstration, flipping one another on the playing field.

Iraq's U.S.- and British-led administration sent troops to guard the match, billed as a symbolic fresh start and a sign of the return to normality in Baghdad, ravaged by waves of looting and arson since Saddam's ouster last month.

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