Devoted few nurture rugby in football-mad Iraq

It was his only job and sole means of funding his studies, but 20-year-old Mohammad Abbas left it for a chance to play on Iraq’s first national rugby side. In a war-torn country where football has long been the dominant sport, Abbas has joined 19 other young Iraqis training for the Arab Rugby Sevens Championship in Jordan next month. 

The sport is so new to Iraq that there is not yet the money to pay them. But with just three weeks to go until the tournament opens, the squad have been honing their skills six days a week. “I’ve fallen in love with this sport,” said Abbas, who quit his job as a delivery man after seeing a recruitment ad for players three months ago. 

Unemployment is high in Iraq, especially among the 60 per cent of the population who are under 25. “I gave up my job for rugby, so I’m going to give my all, even if it’s tough,” said Abbas, who had been saving up to train as a sports teacher. 

His former job lugging large cans of cooking oil may have whipped him into shape, but Abbas now has bigger dreams of fame on the pitch. “I’m doing my best to stand out within the team,” he said. The team “should now become famous”, he added, before running out onto the pitch for a practice game. 

Fellow player Rasul Shaye, a 26-year-old journalism graduate, built up his body strength in construction work, after failing to find work in his field. When he can, he still moonlights on building sites to cover the bus fare from his home in the Baghdad suburbs to the training ground. 

Money is tight for the budding rugby players, who so far do not even receive compensation for their expenses. Fellow squad member Ghaith Kazem, who comes from a wealthy family, sometimes plays mystery benefactor, slipping new boots or a ball into the bags of his fellow players. 

“It keeps their spirits up and encourages them to stay on the team,” he said, before dashing back to training. Team founder Ahmad Qasim said his players — who practise on a pitch loaned for free by Baghdad University — receive no funding from the Iraqi Olympic Committee. 

The 47-year-old, who also heads the electricity ministry sports club, discovered his love of the game while living abroad in Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. He hopes to establish a national rugby federation that will receive public funding, and join the Arab Rugby Union. 

But the team first needs a pitch and training ground of its own. Until then, Abbas, Shaye and their teammates have their eyes set on the Arab Rugby Sevens Championship at Petra University Stadium from October 6 to 7. 

There they will be taking on teams from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Morocco and Lebanon as well as Jordan.

AFP
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