Football scores to ease Iraqi despair

16th November 2007 at 00:00

A former raf squadron leader has persuaded colleges to try to give hope to Iraqi youths through football coaching.

Alan Corbett, who works for the Association of South East Colleges, was recalled to serve in Basra for four months this year. He said he saw people who had received no education because schools and colleges had been crippled first by sanctions, then by war and terrorism.

He chose football to inspire them because the sport is hugely popular in Iraq. The national team's victory in the Asian Cup this year was a source of great pride after the years of fear and violence.

The team, consisting of players from all of the conflicting sections of Iraqi society - Sunnis, Shias and Kurds - won despite death threats, the closure of their stadium, and a past under the ruthless control of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, who tortured players if they lost.

"I just felt desperately sorry for the Iraqi people," said Mr Corbett. "When you meet someone who has never been to school, who has so little hope for the future that they ask you to put a bullet in the back of their head - I'm 47 and I thought I had seen a lot in life, but nothing could prepare you for the despair."

He said the idea of using football to reach out to young Iraqis came from the First World War and the Christmas truce of 1914, when English and German soldiers played in no man's land.

Iraqis are passionate about football. Mr Corbett said not even 50C heat would stop them playing.

Under the plans to foster co-operation in the sport between England and Iraq, Sussex Downs College will send footballs for the teenagers at Basra schools and colleges as a goodwill gesture.

Then, subject to agreement from the Ministry of Defence, Iraqi teenagers are to be flown to Britain to make use of the college's football development centre, where young people can work with professional staff from Brighton and Hove Albion.

Anit Chatrath, communications officer at Sussex Downs College, said: "The whole basis of this project is that desperate young people who feel they've got nothing to live for in a country ravaged by war, whose education has been sporadic, can be shown how in FE you can combine things you are passionate about with education."

Farnborough Sixth Form College in Hampshire, which has a number of Lebanese staff, has offered to provide Arabic interpreters for the students.

Mr Corbett said he hoped that one of Basra's technical colleges could eventually incorporate a football academy where coaches who had learned from their UK counterparts on exchange visits could help young Iraqis hone their skills. "The goodwill for this is massive," he said. "I've never come across anything like it in my working life."

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