BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Anyone born deaf and mute faces a challenge playing in a soccer team -- it's hard to communicate on the pitch, players cannot hear the referee's whistle and few coaches know sign language.
Add the risk of being shot or blown up on the way to training in Baghdad and Iraq's soccer team for deaf-mute players could be forgiven for staying home.
But the squad is set to compete in an international tournament in Kuwait in April, and trainer Hussein al-Shafi says he is determined the team will do their best.
A former local league footballer, Shafi uses sign language he learned from his brother, the chairman of a sports association for handicapped Iraqis, to train a squad of 15 players. He also trains a 12-strong deaf children's side.
"It's tough, but I feel spiritually bound to my players. It's my duty to make sure they succeed," Shafi told Reuters, as young men behind him bounced balls off their feet, gesturing to each other with hand signals when they passed the ball.
Violence has dropped in Iraq, but bomb blasts and gunfire still echo across Baghdad. That has made life hard for the players and sometimes interrupted practice.
"It's difficult to attend training sessions when there are gunfights and blasts everywhere. I'm afraid to come out," said Mohammed Jawad Yusif, 20, talking in sign language through his coach. "Sometimes there's no transport because of roadblocks."
Yusif said one of his friends, also deaf, was killed when gunmen opened fire on a car he was traveling in.
"It sapped my strength to play for a while," he said.
Shafi recalled when a gunfight between rival militias once broke out near the training ground. The players couldn't hear the gunfire, so he signaled for them to hit the ground.
"They didn't understand at first. I panicked, but eventually they went down. When the shooting stopped and they got up, they still thought it was a new training drill," he said.
Iraqis love their football.
The country was the surprise winner of last year's Asian Cup competition.
The victory brought rare joy and unity to the shattered nation, with Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds pouring into the streets to celebrate their team's unlikely 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the final in Jakarta in July.
With the national team as their inspiration, the deaf-mute squad qualified for the regional championships of the Asia Pacific Deaf Games in Kuwait.
Shafi founded the team in 2003, shortly after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein.
At a sports club one evening, he met a group of young deaf men who were bowling, swimming and bodybuilding. He suggested they play soccer.
In training, he works with two other coaches who do not know sign language, but who do the physical training. Shafi teaches the various moves, tactics and strategy.
"Physical training is crucial, but it's not enough. You need someone who can communicate ideas with the kids, especially something technical," he said. "It's still difficult -- with sign language you never get the whole idea across."
Despite the challenges -- the referee has to wave a flag instead of blowing a whistle and each team's trainer sits on the sidelines translating his decisions in sign language -- Shafi says the games are as good as any other.
The players say sometimes only half the squad turns up to training when security is bad. Those who do often travel in fear of being kidnapped or killed on Iraq's still dangerous roads.
But with attacks across Iraq down 60 percent since last June, thanks to an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, Sunni neighborhood patrols and a ceasefire by a feared Shi'ite militia, the team now manages more training sessions.
"The violence has created a lot of problems for us," said Adel Khalef Mahmoud, 20, also using sign language.
"But we manage."
Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Charles Dick