NAJAF, Iraq—The U.S. Marines had clobbered the Republican Guard, but the Iraqi "Poets" savored an undisputed victory over American troops on Monday evening. Najaf's nimble-footed soccer team dealt the Americans, in battle fatigues and combat boots, a devastating 9-0 defeat.
It was an upbeat respite from the usual routine for the Marines, who patrol the city with M16s, trying to put a halt to looting and robberies.
About 500 Iraqis, mostly schoolboys, watched the match from behind tape strung by the Marines. They ate salted sunflower seeds wrapped in old homework papers and cheered the Poets on, oblivious to a huge dust devil whirling near the field.
They also cheered the Americans, since there was no one else to do it.
"USA Team! USA Team!" they yelled.
The sunburned Marines stumbled and tripped on the dirt field, but the confident Iraqi players graciously made excuses for them. "They're good. It's just their shoes and their clothes are terrible," said forward Aamare Abdelah.
The Marine commander, Lt. Col. Chris Conlin, concurred: "We thought we'd packed everything, but I guess we forgot cleats."
Soccer is a favorite pastime for Iraqis. Saddam Hussein's son Odai had members of the national team tortured in 2001 after they lost a game to Iran during the Asia Cup.
Conlin said there were no such plans for his boys. Despite the lopsided score, he said, they would get their first showers and their first hot meals in two months.
The Iraqis didn't gloat. As the Iraqi referee, Furat Kashkool, put it: "We practice soccer all the time. The Marines practice fighting. They need to practice more soccer."
(Laughlin reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SOCCER