Football triumph brings a brief moment of Iraqi unity

Sunni, Shia and Kurd joined in celebrating Iraq's victory - but can sporting success ever boost a nation's fortunes?
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The wild celebrations that rippled out from Baghdad last Sunday after Iraq had won the Asia Cup were a brief moment of joy for the beleaguered people of a benighted country. The sudden fusion of Kurd, Sunni and Shia into the non-denominational category of "football fan" gave hope for a communal future.

But what are we to make of the mysterious power of football to defy wretched circumstances and enchant a nation in a way that no play, concert or film could? The elements are identifiable: the visceral pull of nationalism, the thrill of unstructured drama and, in victory, the double rush that the spectator experiences, first individually then collectively. But what else?

In July 1966, when England won the World Cup, the mass celebrations seemed to be the climax of the cultural shift that, through pop music, fashion and films, had swept away decades of starched orthodoxy. Football had broken free of its flat-cap-and-bottled-beer image and joined the modern arts.

The following year, Celtic became the first British team to win (Scots only ever become "British" in this context) the European Cup, and thousands of fans flew back to Glasgow for the Big Party, forgetting that they had driven to Lisbon. The notion of the "go anywhere, see any game" Scottish fan was born.

By the time of the 1970 World Cup, the Mexican heat shimmered off our TV screens and the distort on sound added to the space-age excitement. Except that England didn't win. Sunday 14 June became infamous as West Germany fought back from two goals down.

Depression shrouded the country. Four days later, the voters kicked out the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who was convinced that Germany's striker Gerd Müller had done more to defeat him than Edward Heath. Myth or not, Gordon Brown's election planners will certainly have taken note of the 2008 European Championships.

Iraq's victory will empower no one just yet. The government fragmented even more last week and the suicide bombers were back. But those who celebrated last Sunday's victory, ignoring curfews and killers, also tasted something longer-lasting than the joy of winning a football match – the defiance to say, Scottish-style: "We are a people."