Game helping to ease pain

In the midst of the conflict that has devastated Iraq over the last four years, one particular news report from Baghdad on 29 July 2007 offered a glimmer of hope for the future. After all the sadness and despair, the Iraqi people were finally able to take to the streets in celebration.

One goal was all it took to bring a measure of joy to people across the war-torn nation. Up against Saudi Arabia in the final of the AFC Asian Cup, a solitary strike from Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud gave the West Asians the trophy for the first time in their history. A team which included Sunni and Shia Muslims and Kurds had given an entire country the chance to rally behind their flag and celebrate a truly momentous occasion.

After the final whistle had blown, Iraq midfielder Haitham Kadhim Tahir had this to say: "This should be the start of a trend among world leaders, encouraging them to think about how to restore peace in Iraq. Our victory sends out a message of unity to the world. I don't know which of my teammates are Shia, Sunni or Kurd. All I know is that we're Iraqis, we were born Iraqis and that's not going to change."

For the people
On 19 September 1985, Mexico was hit by the most devastating earthquake ever to hit the country. Thousands were killed and the damage caused, particularly in Central Mexico's largest cities, was immense. The scenes of suffering were heartbreaking, the devastation seemingly unending.

One year on from that tragic event, the country hosted one of the most memorable FIFA World Cups™ ever. For one glorious month, the Mexican people were able to put their suffering to one side and help set the perfect stage for the likes of Diego Armando Maradona, Michel Platini and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to showcase their sublime talents. The theme of that tournament was "A ball brings the world together", and it could not have been more apt.

Nor was it the only time that the sport of kings helped ease Latin America through times of tragedy. A matter of days before the Paraguay squad were due to leave for the Olympic Football Tournament at Athens 2004, disaster struck the capital Asuncion. A terrible fire tore through a busy shopping centre, and a staggering 420 people lost their lives.

Determined to help raise morale among their stricken countrymen, the Albirroja stars went all the way to the final, coming away with the first Olympic silver medal in Paraguayan history. In the words of Guaraní coach Carlos Jara Saguier: "It's a little drop of joy. We're so sorry about what happened and the pain will never go away. If this success can help in any way, then we're very happy for that. They (the victims) were always there in the back of our minds."

Brazil, Argentina and Haiti
Staying in South America, what better examples of the unifying power of football than Brazil and Argentina? It is no exaggeration to say that many of the most glorious moments in both countries' histories came courtesy of a round leather ball, the beautiful game bringing people together even in times of crisis, whether political, economic or social.

It is perhaps fitting that the job of explaining just how much football means to Brazil should go to Auriverde idol Romario, a key figure in the Seleção side that triumphed at USA 1994. That success, the Verdeamarelos' first FIFA World Cup win in 24 years, also helped ease the suffering caused by the tragic death of national icon Ayrton Senna in May that year. "It gave me the pleasant feeling of having played a part, if only for a few days, in making our people happy. The Brazilian public takes football very seriously," explained the veteran goalgetter. "When we returned to Brazil we saw happiness on the faces of the Brazilian people that wasn't there when we'd left. What I saw were the streets of Brazil filled with ecstatic people. To a downtrodden nation, that win was like a plate of food for someone who is starving. That's something that will stay with me for the rest of my life."

The Brazilians also did their part in August of 2004 when Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and co travelled to troubled Haiti to play a "match for peace" against Haiti's national outfit. Despite the thumping the South Americans gave their beloved national team on the day, the local fans in the stadium in Port au Prince cheered every bit of Selecao mastery as if it were a gift from the heavens. (click on the link to the right to watch video highlights of the special day).

Over in Argentina, meanwhile, the fans' fervour matches that of their Brazilian counterparts. If proof were needed, take this statement from midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron in the wake of the Albicelestes' first-round exit at Korea/Japan 2002. "We made a pact to win the World Cup for our people back home, who were having such a tough time," said Veron, after a tournament that took place within six months of the worst economic and social crisis in his country's history. "We just couldn't do it though and we're so sorry. It's a scar that will never heal, despite the fact that we were fully aware of just how much responsibility was on our shoulders. What makes it even more painful is that none of our opponents played better than us."