In Iraq, little people football team dreams big
Baghdad (AFP) – Twice a week, a small football pitch in Iraq offers the 25-member national squad of little people a chance to fulfil dreams and tackle prejudice.
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Omar Abdel Rahman's team has set its sights on an ambitious goal: to travel to Argentina for their first international tournament.
Despite modest means, the players come from across the country to train, leaving behind their daily troubles, discrimination and jibes.
"The team has changed the course of my life and that of the other players," said Abdel Rahman, who works in a Baghdad cafe where he prepares shishas.
"I'm good at football, but we're treated with contempt and it's impossible to play in mainstream teams," said Abdel Rahman, who stands at 1.42 metres (four foot, eight inches).
"But now everything is changing," said the forward, clad in a number nine jersey, with green socks hiked up to his knees.
The team has just returned from a friendly match in Jordan. Next year, they aim to travel to Argentina to take part in the tournament for little people.
In 2018, a "Dwarf Copa America" was held in Buenos Aires, the first of its kind.
The date of the 2022 edition has yet to be set, said Facundo Mariano Rojas, head of the Argentina-based international football federation for little people.
This will depend mainly on restrictions imposed for the coronavirus pandemic, he told AFP.
"We're also looking for financial resources to help the participating countries."
The matches will be played by seven-member teams in indoor stadiums and on futsal fields.
A key difference will be the size of the goals, fixed at 1.7 metres (about 5.6 feet) in height and two metres in width, compared to the regular 2.44 by 7.32 metres.
It was the Copa America that inspired Hussein Jalil to start up the Iraqi team in 2019.
Other players come from Arbil, Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk in northern Iraq, from Nasiriyah in the southeast, and the eastern city of Kut.
Salah Ahmed, a 37-year-old forward, takes time off from work as a bike-repairman to attend.
"Before joining the team, I suffered from society's attitude towards little people," said the father of one.
'Our team exists'
Dwarfism is a medical or genetic condition that results in a stature below four foot, 10 inches, according to Little People of America, a support organisation.
Those with the condition, who refer to themselves as little people, face several challenges when it comes to playing football.
"Some players suffer harassment in public places and on the streets," said Jalil. "But the situation is changing, football has given them more confidence."
He pointed to other problems, such as finding football kits in the right sizes in the shops, so they have had to improvise.
There are also financial difficulties. When they travel, they have to borrow money to pay for their tickets.
"Upon our return, the youth and sports ministry reimburses up to $7,000 to cover our expenses," Jalil added.
Abdel Rahman, a father of three, said the sport needs more backing.
"In other countries, a team like ours has the support of football stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi," he said.
"In Iraq, the stars of the sport don't even know that our team exists."
© 2021 AFP