BAGHDAD — A series of quick, short passes suddenly left Haitham Kadhim with an opening about 25 yards from the goal. His left foot lashed the ball into the far corner of the net. The thousands of Jawiya supporters packed into Shaab Stadium erupted.
"Say prayers to the Prophet Muhammad. Say prayers to the Prophet Muhammad," they chanted.
Across the thick iron fences that separated opposing fans, the Shurta team's fans applauded politely. They were acknowledging the quality of the goal and the sheer joy that after years of fighting, of games canceled because of invasion, car bombs, sniper attacks or sectarian strife, soccer is back in Baghdad.
"This is the first time since 2003 I've felt safe enough to come back to the stadium," said Mohammed Salih, 28, with the smile of a man whose team was winning. "There's so much news about bad politics and poor security. Football is the only thing that brings relief to my soul."
For many here, life is soccer. Young boys wear European team shirts until they're threadbare; Barcelona is popular, but there are more than a few shirts celebrating David Beckham's superstardom in Los Angeles. Soccer logos have replaced war graffiti on blast walls. Adults chant and dance by the thousands again, in pure celebration, while watching matches.
In some ways, soccer defines this war-ravaged country. Want to understand Iraq over the last couple decades? Study the league standings.
The best teams have always come from Baghdad. Of the 28 teams in the leading league, which dates to 1974, eight are based in the capital. The air force sponsors Jawiya and the Baghdad police sponsor Shurta. The Ministry of Transportation sponsors Zawraa, the country's proudest club. The Ministry of Higher Education sponsors Talaba, the students' team. Together, they make up the big four, with a combined 21 championships. Only two teams from outside Baghdad had won the league before the U.S.-led invasion.
The invasion killed two seasons — and changed everything.
When it sputtered back to life in autumn 2004, the Dawri al Mumtaz wasn't much of a league. Teams couldn't travel to games. The best players and coaches had fled.
The worse the violence was in an area, the worse its soccer teams were.
Ramadi, in insurgent- and al Qaida in Iraq-infested Anbar province — and always a fan favorite — was knocked out of the league.
Basra, where Shiite militiamen battled British troops, struggled to schedule games.
Najaf, where U.S. troops tried to pin down firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, was patchy at best.
In Samarra, where the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque ignited Shiite-Sunni Muslim sectarian war, the team crashed to the bottom of the league.
In the tightly controlled Kurdish north, however, the teams were finding success for the first time. Irbil won two titles, its first ever, in back-to-back years.
It was the fall of Baghdad teams, however, that raised the most eyebrows. It wasn't as simple as games lost.
Husham al Salman, a soccer writer for the newspaper Azzaman, can't remember all the players who were killed, especially after the sectarian violence escalated in 2006. He counted: three in a car bomb attack; one, while practicing, by mortar fire; another executed in his home; a stray bullet found another one.
Of course, there also were the kidnappings and the shrapnel injuries.
"Just now, it feels like a league again," Salman said. "With all the stars gone, how is the quality of play? It is much better than sectarian violence."