Soccer tournament brings sense of normalcy back to Taji
January 2, 2009
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - Soccer players put on a display of footwork and skill during a Taji Qada soccer tournament at the Taji Stadium, northwest of Baghdad, Dec. 26.
The tournament was hosted by local leaders in the area in conjunction with Soldiers from 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment "Strykehorse," 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team "Warrior," 25th Infantry Division, Multi-National Division - Baghdad.
Four teams, consisting of 11 players from Al- Rekiya, Taji, and Hammiat, along with a fourth team from the Strykehorse Squadron, participated in the round-robin tournament.
Staff Sgt. James Pepoon, an avid soccer player, said he came up with the idea to host a soccer tournament with the residents in the area.
"I asked my platoon leader about the chances of playing with the people here," said Pepoon, a native of Bristol, R.I., who serves as a cavalry scout with 2nd Sqdn., 14th Cav. Regt. "He first told me that it'd have to be played in body armor, and that didn't sit too well with me."
But he went ahead with a plan anyway. Pepoon talked to friends and Family in his hometown and, in the end, more than 1,000 pounds of soccer equipment was donated by local club teams from all over Rhode Island.
The New England Revolution, a Major League Soccer Team, also donated to the cause. Among the items were coach's clipboards, whistles, soccer balls and jerseys.
The amount of equipment donated through Pepoon's sheer determination to make an event happen, plus the improved security situation in the Taji Qada, inspired Lt. Col Thomas Mackey, a native of San Bernardino, Calif., Strykehorse's commander, to support the idea.
"The security conditions in the Taji area are good. The Iraqi Security Forces, along with the local government and the people here, are all working together to sustain the good security established in this area," Mackey said. "The Taji Soccer Club Stadium is a venue that can be well secured, thus mitigating the threats to the event and to our Soldiers playing in the tournament."
With that, Operation Strykehorse Ku'oko'a Peku, or Strykehorse Free Kick, was set into motion.
On the morning of the event, local leaders and volunteers, with the help of Troop C, 2nd Sqdn. 14th Cav. Regt., prepared the stadium for the game.
Hundreds of spectators filled the seats of the Taji Stadium to witness the historical event. Among them were several former national players and coaches: most notably was Emmanuel Baba Dano, the "Pele" of Iraq. Known in Iraq as Amu Baba, he was the Iraqi National Coach during the 1980s and 1990s.
The round-robin format placed each of the four teams against each other in games that consisted of two 25-minute halves.
The winner from game one faced off against the winner of game two in the championship game, while the defeated teams from each game would face off in the consolation bracket.
Donning the blue uniforms with the New England Revolution logo print across the front, the Strykehorse Squadron met the team from Al-Rekiya. A hard fought battle between the two teams resulted in a tie forcing a penalty kick shootout in which the Al-Rekiya would claim victory.
Game two also saw Hammamiat win the game with a penalty kick in an overtime shootout against Taji, sending them to the championship against Al-Rekiya. The championship game, much like the previous games played earlier in the tournament, went to a dramatic double overtime shootout.
With the penalty kicks even at eight going into the tenth and final shot for both teams, Hammamiat scored, sending a shot into the lower right corner of the goal. With the added pressure of now having to score, a member from the Al-Rekiya team placed the ball at the eight yard line, measured his steps, and made his approach to the ball. Needing to make this kick to send it to a third overtime, his shot hit the cross bar, giving the Hammamiat team victory, which sent the crowd into a frenzy.
The victors celebrated near the goal with smiles, handshakes and hugs. They were then presented their medals by the leaders responsible for assisting in setting up the tournament. The final award was a team trophy, which the entire team hoisted into the air for all in the stadium to see.
This reconciliation event ended in deeper friendships and a return to normalcy.
"There were teams and fans from both Sunni and Shia areas participating together as Iraqis," Mackey said. "The benefit of our Soldiers participating in the event was to demonstrate to the population that we are here for them... we are their brothers. Terrorists can never come back and do what they did in Taji last year. Normal life is returning here."