The world is engulfed in political chaos. Alexi Demetriadi looks back to Iraq’s Asian Cup victory in 2007 and explores how sport in a fractured country transcended politics, ethnicity and war.
Iraq; a country ravaged by war, living under foreign occupation, poverty stricken and ethnically divided sent its national football team to the AFC Asian Cup finals in Southeast Asia in 2007 with the intention of giving their country back some long lost joy. A team composed of primarily domestic based players was a long shot to exit their initial group, let alone progress further in the competition.
But on July 29th, 2007, at about 5:00pm Iraqi time, tears could be seen on hundreds of Iraqi faces and gunshots could be heard in the streets of Baghdad. These were not the sights of war, but rather of jubilation as a single goal, against all odds, had won Iraq the Asian Cup. It was, according to the manager Jorvan Viera, “not just about football, it was more important than that. This is not about one team, it is about human beings.”
Football has a long, and at times dark, history in Iraq. It is followed feverishly throughout the country, but this has not prevented the interference of politics in football and like so many others, the sport and the national team fell foul at the hands of the then dictator Saddam Hussein and more specifically, his erratic and violent son, Uday.
Long seen as the heir to Saddam’s throne, Uday Hussein was a brutal man who was widely feared throughout Iraq. Once sentenced to death by his father and known for his brutality, Uday, as head of the Iraqi Football Association, took a keen interest in the performances of the national football team.
The infamous Sir Alex Ferguson ‘hairdryer treatment’ was taken to horrific extremes under Uday. During games, he reportedly kept a scorecard and inscribed how many times, dependent on their performance, a player should be beaten. After failing to reach the 1994 World Cup, the team was forced to play a training match with a concrete ball.
After a 3-3 draw against the United Arab Emirates, penalties were required to separate the two teams. Midfielder Abbas Rahim was one of the few to step forward to take a penalty and he recounts the realisation of what would happen if he were to miss. “Many of the team refused to even touch the ball, but then we realised that if no one accepted, we would all be punished.” Rahim missed the crucial penalty as Iraq fell to defeat. Two days later, he was blindfolded, sent to jail and beaten for three weeks.
A red card offence, which would gain a three-match ban in the Premier League, was met by a much worse fate under Uday. After receiving a straight red card, former captain Yasser Abdul Latif was sent to a prison camp, spent days in a raw sewage bath and was whipped by an electric cable. After leaving the camp, he was still not free from Saddam’s son’s grip; “If I didn’t participate again in the team,” Latif recounts, “I would be considered an enemy of the regime and be sentenced to death.”
Horrifyingly, even as recent as 2000, after a 4-1 defeat to Japan in the Asian Cup, three players determined by Uday as ‘contributing to defeat’ were again sent to prison and viciously tortured.
After the invasion of Iraq by US forces in 2003, Iraq was ridden of dictator Saddam Hussein while two of his sons, including Uday, were killed in US gunfire in Mosul. Iraq, and its national team, would no longer be at the whim of the Hussein family.
The US invasion of Iraq, derided by many, brought an end to the brutal Hussein dictatorship. But the invasion, and the subsequent occupation, resulted in around 200,000 civilian deaths and arguably exasperated the pre-existing economical and social problems in Iraq. In 2007, President George W. Bush pushed ahead with operation ‘The New Way Forward’ which saw the deployment of an extra 20,000 US troops in Iraq.
After the US troop surge, the country’s problems mounted even further. Around 1,700 civilian deaths were recorded in 2007 while one in five Iraqis lived in poverty. Almost half of the population was on ration cards and ethnic tensions continued to simmer under the occupation.
It is in this context that 2007 should be viewed. It was a year that saw the death count rise, poverty increase and the Sunni-Shia-Kurd tensions continue to worsen. But also ultimately a year that brought, if only even a glimmer of it, joy and hope.
Nicknamed The Lions of Mesopotamia, The Iraq national team had qualified for the 2007 AFC Asian Cup the previous year. Hosted by four Southeast Asian countries, the Asian Cup brings together the best national football sides in Asia. The favourites, Japan and Australia, were expected to go far, but it was also an opportunity for the smaller nations to compete on a grand scale. It was with optimism, but ultimately acceptance to an exit in the group stages, that Iraq entered the competition.
Experienced Brazilian manager Jorvan Viera was the man tasked with guiding the team in the competition, but in what would be a recurring theme for the Iraq team, unfortunate events meant that he had little over two months to prepare his new team and thanks to the refusal of the large Baghdad clubs to release their players, his first training sessions were attended by only six players.
Instantly Viera realised the team, almost mirroring the situation in Iraq as a whole, lacked unity. The team was composed of three main ethnic groups in Iraq; Sunni, Shia and Kurd, and infighting did not stop at the football team. “There was no kind of unity,” Viera recalls, “the relationship between the players was very bad. We could not have them at war with each other.”
Problems plagued the national team from the offset and threatened to derail any hope they had at a credible tournament. The team only had one shirt each, to be worn for both training and matches, and ran out of the jerseys midway through the competition. When travelling during the tournament, the team would be left waiting for hours at immigration thanks to strict immigration laws surrounding Iraqi passports while financial difficulties plagued the team throughout. “Everything went wrong – hotels, food, equipment, players, training, logistics.” Viera recounts, “You cannot imagine what we went through.”
Iraq’s first game was against one of the hosts, Thailand, in Bangkok. The two lowest ranked teams of the group played out an entertaining 1-1 draw in front of a packed Bangkok crowd. Initially regarded as a possible win for Iraq, the team would now have to avoid defeat against one of the favourites of the tournament to even consider progressing from the group; Australia.
Australia, one of the tournaments early favourites, was one of the few teams with a large amount of Premier League players making up the squad. The salaries of British based Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka and Mark Schwarzer dwarfed that of their Iraqi opponents, many of whom were on a fraction of what their star studded opponents received.
What followed was one of the upsets of the tournament. Iraq recorded a 3-1win over the favourites to the jubilation of the millions of Iraqis back home. After drawing with Oman, Iraq would meet one of the hosts, Vietnam, in the quarterfinals and after a comprehensive 2-0 victory, the team set up a semi-final draw with South Korea.
After a goalless 120 minutes of football, a penalty shootout was to decide the two teams. In stark contrast to fear that froze the Iraqi players in the penalty shootout loss to the UAE, knowing the fate at the hands of Uday Hussein that would meet them if they missed, the Iraqi players stepped up and defeated the South Koreans. Celebrations broke out in the Iraqi area of the stadium and thousands of miles away in Baghdad. Commentator Haider Abdali proclaimed, “This team will be a picture of Iraq because the team is mixed from all of Iraq.”
The team, amidst the backdrop of war, had reached the final of a major international tournament for the first time in their history and immediately after their semi-final victory over South Korea, the team’s media officer exclaimed that “people don’t know what to do; they are crying with happiness.”
Sadly it was not only tears of happiness that bestowed the people of Iraq that night. While the Baghdad locals celebrated a famous win, two bomb attacks ripped through the centre streets of the capital, killing more than 50 people and leaving around 150 injured.
After exiting the stadium and hearing the news of the attacks after convening at their hotel for the night, the Iraqi team deliberated until the early hours of the morning as to whether they should pull out of the final against Saudi Arabia in a couple of days time in the wake of the bombings. Manager Viera recalls the moment his players knew they had to carry on as they explained to him “if we win, there will be more killing; if we lose there will be more killing; and if we pull out there will be more killing. At least if we stay on and win, we might be able to bring some happiness into people’s lives.”
A few days later, on July 29th, in front of a crowd of 60,000 in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Iraq lined up against Saudi Arabia for the Asian Cup crown. For the Iraqi team, years of hardship, on and off the pitch, had culminated to this. After 70 minutes on the clock, the score was still deadlocked at 0-0, but it would not be long until the breakthrough.
After a corner was floated into the far post, Younis Mahmoud, the influential captain of the Iraq team rose high, powering past the Saudi goalkeeper. Delirium ensued as the thousands of Iraqi fans celebrated wildly at the goal. Later admitting, “I had booked my ticket home for after our three group games,” Mahmoud’s late header was to be the only goal of the game and win the Asian Cup for Iraq.
At the final whistle, the Iraq bench spilled onto the pitch, mirrored by the thousands of people wildly spilling out into the streets to celebrate a famous night. Cries and gunshots, too frequently heard in modern day Iraq, filled the air but they were not cries of sadness, but of joy and happiness that erupted through the night. Celebrations were seen throughout Iraq in Baghdad and Basra, Mosul and Erbil while celebrations across the globe also took place.
A nation and team divided by war and ethnicity had come together to achieve one of sports most unlikely of stories and after the whistle had blown in Jakarta, the words of commentator Simon Hill echoed far and wide to the millions watching across the globe; “Iraq are champions, the fairytale is complete. The team without a home base, the team without a coach until two months ago, the team left waiting in a hotel lobby for hours, the team that struggled to travel because of their passports, the team without hope has brought joy to its fractured nation. Football has perhaps succeeded where politics has failed.”
Featured image: Wikimedia