By Richard Edwards with 42 Commando in Southern Iraq
And Our Boys emerged clear winners – despite a 9-3 defeat.
Thoughts of war were set aside as the men of Juliet Company, 42 Commando, swapped weapons and helmets for T-shirts and trainers to toil in the dusty streets of Khor Az Zubahir, Basra.
As cheering supporters gathered to watch beneath a searing sun, they lined up against the local first XI – whose captain turned out in an immaculate Arsenal strip.
Once football hostilities commenced, the soldiers were roundly beaten by the gleeful Iraqi team.
But the result paled against the significance of the match, which marked a turning point in relations with a people whose city has been under siege for the past two weeks.
The Marines described the game, staged on Wednesday, as a “marvellous confidence-building measure”.
CO Major Kevin Oliver, 35, said: “When we first arrived here there was contact with armed groups. “A patrol came under fire. But we responded firmly. We rounded up people identified as Ba’ath Party activists and closed the party headquarters. We want to show we are liberators, not conquerors.”
Abdul Salim, a community leader who refereed the match, said: “We challenged the British because we wanted to show we can have normal relations with them. There is a lot that might keep us apart, but football is something we share.”
The sporting scenes were repeated yesterday in Umm Khayyal, where Marines again took on the local soccer team – this time losing 7-3. On this occasion the opposition outflanked Our Boys by arriving in full strip, complete with squad numbers and Astroturf rubber-studded boots.
A thousand spectators came from all ends of town – throngs of screaming men and children marking out the boundaries of the pitch. Leading Airman Dave Husbands, of 42 Commando’s K Company said: “We turned up to play and there were just a few kids. Then out of nowhere came this kitted-up football team, a ref and two linesmen.
“The boys thought they must be the Iraqi international side or something. In truth, they thrashed us.”
To the soldiers’ amazement the referee even had a whistle and cards in his pocket, while his two linesmen proudly carried flags.
Hundreds of children chanted – some sporting the red shirts of Manchester United or Arsenal and carrying playing card pictures of David Beckham and David Seaman. Behind them lay old defensive military positions, trenches used two weeks ago by the Iraqi army. Now they were sandpits for kids.
On the pitch, the Umm Khayyal XI made merry – skipping around the Marines’ robust tackles and joyfully passing the ball around.
Meanwhile, the crowds on the sidelines grew as news filtered through the town of the Iraqi triumph.
“Beckham is best, Beckham is best,” shouted Mohammed, a 21-year-old spectator.
“You need him,” laughed his pal, pointing to the pitch. “You lose bad.”
Unit commander, Lt Col Buster Howes, tried to be magnanimous in defeat. “We want a rematch,” he said with a smile.
© News Group Newspapers