- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi team did not make it past the first-round qualifier. Yet World Cup passion is strong in Baghdad, offering people a few hours of relief from the daily violence.

Those who can crowd into coffee shops such as Dream Nights, where a big sign outside announces live broadcasts of the matches.

Owner Abdulmajeed Abed is preparing his cafe in central Baghdad for the final match Sunday, stocking up on gas for his generator and getting in supplies for the crowd of 120 people he expects.

“Iraqis are crazy about soccer,” he said. “People care more about how many goals Brazil or Argentina made than about how many explosions there are a day.”

During one match between Sweden and England, Dream Nights came to a halt. Even the man washing dishes stopped, his eyes glued to the television. The ball came winging down and just missed the goal. A general moan went up.

But just as the game was heating up, the power went out and for some reason the coffee shop’s generator did not kick in. The fans and air conditioners stopped, the television died. Suddenly the juice, tea, coffee and water pipe lost their appeal, and the customers streamed out.

“When someone watches a game, he will get carried away, he feels at ease and happy; it is two hours of entertainment. He will watch, then shout ‘Goooooaaal,’” said Mazin Mohssin, a 24-year-old student.

But just hearing the results on the radio or reading about them the next day in the newspapers, the best many in Baghdad can hope for, takes all the magic out of the moment, Mr. Mohssin said.

Ali Mohammed, a 17-year-old student, had set up everything for the tournament. He bought extra gas for his generator and even stored up bags of potato chips.

In order to reduce the gas costs, he made a deal with his neighbor to watch alternate games in each other’s home. Everything was all set. But his mood went sour when he learned that the game would not be available on free television; he would have to either purchase an antenna or a special satellite card to watch the games.

“The card costs $200. I really can’t afford it,” said Mr. Mohammed, who rooted for England until its elimination Saturday. He has settled for getting the game results from the radio or from friends who can afford the special transmission card, but he says it is just not the same.

Ali Mazzen 16, a fan of the Brazilian team, and his brother are able to watch the games at home, but only as long as the power holds out.

“I watch one game or half a game. Sometimes I watch only the results. We suffer from the lack of electricity. It keeps going off, but we get used to this,” he said.

Most of Baghdad receives four hours of electricity spread throughout the day.

But even if it is just for a few minutes, or a couple of hours, soccer fever has brought some relief to a population exhausted from three years of random violence and brutal sectarian killings.

“My brother got killed in an explosion two months ago,” Ali said. The World Cup, he said, “is the only thing that has made me forget him.”

• The reporter’s byline is withheld to protect him and his family.

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