American Idols

It's a hot, wind-warped day at the Dallas Cup Youth Soccer Tournament in Frisco, and a team of 13-year-old boys has just administered a 6-0 ass-kicking. As they jubilantly leave Pizza Hut Park, the group of players and their supporters happens upon a gaggle of barely legal girls. Fit, flirty and flushed, the female fans are soaking in the soccer and the sun wearing shades, smiles and sports bras.

To most, it's pure eye-candy skin. To this select group, however, it's polluted eye-for-an-eye sin.

Because in America, boys will be boys.

But in Iraq, boys--like it or not--will be men. Fun-loving but battle-hardened 13-year-old Muslim men who find solace in soccer, fall in love with hamburgers and totally ignore scantily clad co-eds.

"It's just so different," said Cari Tanner, a devoted soccer mom who hosted two of the Iraqi players at her Coppell home during the tournament. "They weren't interested in anything the least bit provocative. We went to BJ's restaurant, and they didn't want to sit in the booth because there was a cartoon pin-up girl picture on the wall. To us it was a harmless, silly cartoon. But they were seriously offended."

With political red-tape assists from the mayor's office, $100,000 for expenses from Dallas-based Hyperion Resources and southern hospitality from members of the Dallas Texans soccer club, the Iraqis descended on Dallas--with soap and cologne. In exchange for their modest gifts, 18 players, coaches and escorts from Iraq's National Under-14 soccer team were given a two-week hall pass from their war-torn homeland.

"It's a dream for us to be in the United States," said Iraq coach Hassan Ahmed. "In Iraq there is always danger. Here, it is pure."

Bet the Convention & Visitors Bureau hadn't thought of that for a marketing slogan--"Dallas: It Is Pure." But it also hasn't practiced on the shrapnel-littered dust bowls of Baghdad, where last year two members of the team were killed by an explosion. (Delegates from the group declined to provide details.)

Thanks to executive director Gordon Jago and the Dallas Cup, the Iraqis were invited to play in the 27th version of the world's most prestigious youth soccer tournament that annually reminds us that soccer, like oil, is a universal language.

"It's really a neat story. It's what the Dallas Cup is all about," Jago said. "They are marvelous kids and wonderful players. It's nice to give them the chance to stop worrying about everything and just play soccer. You can see it in their faces--they don't have a fear or a concern."

After three impressive wins by a combined 16-2, Iraq's stay in the tournament was snipped by a 2-1 loss to Georgia's Cobb Premier in last Thursday's quarterfinals. But from the time they got off the American Airlines flight on April 7 to the morning they left for a little red-carpet sightseeing in Washington, D.C., the Iraqi invasion was a stunning success--and a walking culture clash.

Like the other moms who opened their homes to the Iraqis, Tanner's mission was simple: Make it feel nothing like home. Tanner and her 13-year-old member of the Texans, Jake, hosted Iraqi players Sadeq and Ali Z. Both were from Baghdad. Both had 11 siblings. Neither exhibited the slightest hint of homesickness.

"The fields. The green of the grass. The big basketball stadium. My new family. Everything I like. So beautiful," said Ali Z through interpreter Al-Hazzan. "America is a country blessed by God."

(Editorial aside: How is it easier to get good quotes from a 13-year-old Iraqi who doesn't speak a lick of English than from our NFL team's head coach?)

In Iraq, where they fear suicide bombers more than pesky fullbacks, Sadeq and Ali Z are 13 going on 31. But at the Dallas Cup, and at the Tanners', they were true teens.

Despite the non-stop game of Charades born out of the debilitating language barrier, the Tanner household flourished in this exaggerated episode of Wife Swap. The boys went swimming, played basketball (with their feet and heads, of course) and devoured Tanner's breakfast spread of eggs, bread with cream cheese, rice and mango juice. For dinner, the Iraqis were treated to kabobs and introduced to an American staple--fast food.

"Hamburgers!" Ali Z said with a smile when quizzed about his new favorite foods. "Fried chicken." But what about French fries? Even a Sunni needs his veggies, right? "No," he said with a grimace. "Only very little."

Jake showed his new buddies how to play FIFA 2006 on Xbox (knowledge that came in very handy later when Iraq punctuated goals with creative celebrations). The Iraqis taught Jake how to make their signature noise, an unfathomably loud "pop" from snapping four intertwined fingers. And Tanner played makeshift mom, walking the line between good times and common sense.

"Their favorite thing is to get in the car, roll the windows down, turn the rap music way up and have me drive as fast as I can," Tanner said with a chuckle. "They don't understand the words. And they really didn't understand seat belts."

After the team's second victory, in which several fans showed up draped in Iraqi flags, the players sang "Iraq victory! Great God!" and danced in a circle, turning the field into a mosh pit and the moms into a combination of sobbing sentimentalists/proud parents.

"We didn't know what to expect, but it's been wonderful," said Jolyne Doyle, who hosted two players at her home in McKinney. "They're so humble and caring. They might care about the politics, but we didn't talk about it. With all they've been through, it was nice just to sit back and let them be comfortable having a good time."

Goooooooooal! The Iraqis spent a week grinning, from their tour of City Hall, to their sweet suite seats at a Mavericks game to even playing a game of one-touch on the pristine, marble floors of the Hotel Intercontinental.

After a week in Dallas, the Iraqis still don't appreciate a blond hottie unless she's wrapped in a burqa. But at least for a few moments they learned it's possible to be not only happy in America but also at peace.

At their final game one of the team's managers wore a T-shirt featuring an American bald eagle framed in Arabic language.

"It means," said an interpreter, cueing the goose bumps, "freedom."

Maybe now we can unfurl Bush's premature proclamation: "Mission Accomplished."

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt