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RAMADI, Iraq (August 15, 2008) – The South Ramadi soccer team, the winners of the five-day, city-wide Ramadi Soccer Tournament, celebrate after receiving trophies for their victory August 14. The tournament involved 10 teams from various neighborhoods in the city. The event was highlighted by two elimination-style games played each night until a winner was determined. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Casey Jones)

Photo by Lance Cpl. Casey Jones

Kicking a path to freedom

15 Aug 2008 | Lance Cpl. Casey Jones

RAMADI, Iraq (August 15, 2008) – Throughout modern history, sports have helped recovering regions come together.

One example came shortly after the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001. The attack devastated citizens of New York City, but the Yankee’s success the following year helped to brighten their spirits. That year, the baseball team won the American League pennant for the fourth consecutive season. 

About a year after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, the New Orleans Saints helped citizens take their minds off exhausting rebuilding efforts and relax for a few hours each Sunday during football season. The team broke several franchise records that year, seemingly carrying the entire region on its back, and went to play in the National Football Conference championship game for the first time in its 41-year history.   

Communities seem to heal faster when sports are involved.

When 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, and Ramadi’s leaders decided to hold a five-day soccer tournament at the city’s newly renovated Mulaab Soccer Stadium, they hoped the event would have the same effect.

The Ramadi Soccer Tournament involved 10 teams from neighborhoods across the city, and was composed of two single elimination-style games played each night until a winner was determined.

“Soccer truly is a world sport,” said Lt. Col. Brett A. Bourne, the battalion commander for 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. “It doesn’t cost money to play; you just need a ball and a field. All of the children in this region can come to this stadium and play a game.”

Col. Hattim Hamid, the Mulaab station Iraqi Police chief, said the citizens of Ramadi were excited about the renovations and the ensuing tournament.

“Hundreds of Ramadi citizens have told me they would dream of seeing the stadium return to its past glory and to be able to play soccer there again,” Hattim said. “They thought that dream would never come true. But, with the help of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, and other Coalition forces throughout the years, the stadium was rebuilt and their dreams have been fulfilled.”

Extensive renovations went into rebuilding the soccer stadium after intense combat between Coalition forces and insurgents over the last five years left it in ruins. The stadium’s seats, walls and even the grass were destroyed.

The fighting in the city had also torn its citizens apart, forcing them to choose sides and do whatever it took to stay alive. Insurgents had been successful in dividing the city, but the tournament was the perfect way for everyone to reconnect and put aside their differences.

 “(The insurgents) made it so that the north couldn’t be with the south and so on, but now with the aid of this tournament the city has come back together,” Hattim said.

Soccer is a very popular sport in the city of more than 500,000 people. The Marines and city officials hope the revitalized stadium will give citizens here, especially the children, a constructive and peaceful pastime.

“This stadium will give the children an alternative to being on the streets,” Bourne said. “It will give the students somewhere positive to channel their energy.”

Events like this are taking place more and more throughout Iraq as it becomes increasingly safer. Iraqi Police took the lead on providing security during the tournament, while 1st Battalion, 9th Marines were on hand as advisors. 

“The Iraqi Police did a great job posting security for the tournament,” said 1st Lt. Patrick J. Skehan, the platoon commander for 81mm Mortars Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. “The Iraqi Police have learned that with every new (Marine) battalion that comes to the city, the expectations for the police will increase. I think they’ve met those expectations.”

Thanks to increased security across the city, leaving little chance for an attack during the tournament, the IPs focused their efforts on controlling the crowd.

On the first night of the event, attendance was estimated at about 350 people. The total increased nearly two-fold each night thereafter.

“The turnout was different than expected,” Bourne said. “At first it was mostly Iraqi Police in attendance, but every day the crowd has almost doubled. On the last day, the (stadium) was filled with families and people young and old, male and female.”

Several Marines sat with the locals and watched the competition just as any other fan.  A few of the Marines said the event gave them a feel of home. 

“The tournament had a couple of concession stands open and a few local vendors sold popsicles and other treats in the stands,” Bourne said. “It was much like a sporting event you would go to in the United States.”

The Marines at the event received a great response from the locals, who would often approach them to say thanks for helping put together the tournament and refurbish their city’s iconic landmark.

“I can’t find a strong enough word to show our thanks for what the Marines have done for not only the Iraqi Police, but all of the citizens of Ramadi,” Hattim said. 

After five days of competition, a team from South Ramadi clinched the tournament title. They received trophies, but quickly refocused after accepting a challenge by the Marines to play them in a 60 minute exhibition match.

The Marines were widely viewed by those in attendance as the underdog. As expected, the Iraqi Police won the game in a shut-out with the final score 2-0. But Hattim said the score was irrelevant, as the game had a more momentous, symbolic meaning.

“The game was entertaining but it really didn’t matter who was victorious,” Hattim said. “The only thing that mattered was that the Marines and Iraqi Police came together as brothers and the city of Ramadi came together as one.”