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From cubs to roaring lions on the soccer pitch

On the surface, it appears to be like any other community based soccer team, but the Iraqi Lions weren’t always roaring.

Established 20 years ago by a group of newly arrived refugees from Iraq, the Iraqi Lions club has become a home for many young men who have fled war and persecution in Iraq.  

The Iraqi Lions boast of their competitive triumphs, including taking the top spot in the Sydney Amateur league tournament and runner up in the community Asian cup. But the team’s talent and success has been forged from a history of struggle.

28-year-old central midfielder Jaffar Al Bayati came to Australia by boat. His family took refuge in Lakemba and soon enough he was introduced to the Iraqi Lions.

“Soccer was what bought me my new friends because my English wasn’t that good. So I heard about this club from my friends who were playing at a higher level. They always would say we played for this team and we played for the Iraqi Lions, everyone was talking about the team so I had to train and get a spot in it,” he told The Point Magazine.  

45-year-old Mohamed Al Maliki, is the team’s coach since 1995, says soccer is in the Iraqi blood.

“In reality everyone knows that we Iraqis love soccer, as a matter of fact when we play it’s like a fight, we’ve got to win,” he said.

He said his team’s aim is to not only win tournaments but nurture young talent.

“We welcome anyone from any background and religion. In our team we have Sunnis, Shias and Christians, it’s by no means an Iraqi only soccer team.”

– Mohamed Al Maliki, Iraqi Lions Coach.

“We wish that we can have many more young players and we can train them up and they can eventually become players who will represent Australia at even a national and international level,” he said.

Many players still have family living in Iraq and some recently travelled there for the first time since arriving in Australia.

 “It’s so sad to see what’s happening in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East, this is what we ran away from. We came here to live peacefully in Australia,” said Ali Munahi.

Jaffar Al Bayati returned to Iraq three years ago and says it was a life changing experience.

“It was hard to see how they live over there and their life experiences and situations compared to what we have. We’re blessed, even things as small as a soccer field with grass. When I was over there I played soccer there with my friends and it was terrible, I would play soccer in the dust and they love it there because that’s all that they have,” he said.

The team has some star players, according to 35-year-old team coordinator, Ahmad Minahi, but it struggles financially in some tournaments.

“Our team has no funding and so every few weeks the team players donate a gold coin so that we can purchase new soccer balls and training equipment. When we go interstate to tournaments we sleep in the tour bus sometimes because we can’t afford to pay for a hotel for the full tournament and we don’t want the players to pay from their pockets... it breaks my heart, ” he said. 

Ahmad said limited funding also  affects team morale, “We don’t even have ground to train on; we go to parks and wait for other teams to finish training before we have the opportunity to get onto the pitch.”

Although the team has limited funds, Ahmad said his players are as loyal as they come.

“It’s not fair on the players that the team doesn’t have many sponsors, these guys are great players  and some have been offered positions with an income at other clubs but they don’t sign on because they love the team and what it stands for and I’m proud of that, ” he said.

Minahi said although his new home is Australia he supports the Iraqi soccer team when they play against the Socceroos, “I love the Socceroos but there’s a long connection I have with the Iraqi soccer team that will remain with me forever.”

Spokesman for NSW Football Federation, Mark Stavroulakis said supporting teams like the Iraqi Lions was paramount.

“Some of the stories you hear of refugees fleeing their countries for a better life here in Australia are overwhelming but it’s great to know that a sport such as football can reunite and ignite the passion they have for this spot.”

He told The Point Magazine the possibilities that such teams offer are endless, “ There are so many talented refugees playing this game bringing together their talents from abroad, we may well see a future Socceroo or Matildas star in the making .”

The Point

A local soccer team made up of former asylum seekers is changing the lives of young Iraqi men.

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