Football’s biggest fairytale: Remembering Iraq’s unlikely triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup

“Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important.” – Pope John Paul II 

The Asian Cup, it’s fair to say, was not at the forefront of most Iraqis’ minds in the summer of 2007. Combat in the Middle Eastern nation had been incessant since a United States-led coalition invaded the country four years earlier, and the 22 players who headed off to Southeast Asia for the 14th edition of the continental competition couldn’t simply leave the war behind. According to figures produced by the Iraq Body Count and the Iraqi Defence Ministry, the conflict had already claimed the lives of over 85,000 civilians and more than 15,000 insurgents. No one in the country had been untouched by it, even if they happened to earn their living as a footballer.

The invasion was launched in March 2003, and it didn’t take long for the US – together with its allies, the United Kingdom, Poland, Australia and Iraqi Kurdistan – to achieve their stated aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government. President George W. Bush and his administration were woefully unprepared for the power vacuum which subsequently opened up, however, and the US soon became embroiled in a complex struggle that it didn’t truly understand. Sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims spread rapidly across the country; some of the groups involved received backing by Iran and al-Qaeda, further complicating the situation for the coalition forces.

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In a bid to secure Baghdad and its surrounding areas, Bush announced a troop surge in January 2007. Twenty thousand more soldiers were sent into the country, while many of those who were already there had their tours extended. Bush’s ‘New Way Forward’ was rooted in six fundamental elements: let the Iraqis lead; help Iraqis protect the population; isolate extremists; create space for political progress; diversify political and economic efforts; and situate the strategy in a regional approach.

With the country in such turmoil, football proved a welcome – if comparatively inconsequential – distraction. Despite being forced to play their home matches in the United Arab Emirates due to the threat of terrorism, Iraq had qualified for the Asian Cup pretty comfortably, winning three, drawing two and losing just one of their six group games against China, Singapore and Palestine.

It was the fourth consecutive tournament they had qualified for, but the focus was not so much on bettering their quarter-final appearances of 1996, 2000 and 2004 but rather proving to the people of Iraq that the country’s disparate cultural and religious groups could come together under one national banner.

That, of course, would not be easy. Preparations were less than ideal, with poor facilities and a paucity of equipment making life even tougher for coach Jorvan Vieira, a journeyman Brazilian who had previously worked in Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, and who had only been appointed by Iraq two months prior to the Asian Cup. Training in Jordan didn’t insulate the players from events back home, either: there were reports of death threats made against their relatives, while the team’s physiotherapist, Anwar Alewi, was killed by a car bomb after returning to Iraq shortly before the competition began.

The squad selected by Vieira and the Iraqi FA featured a mix of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, but the players resolved to leave religion to one side as they rallied around a common goal. Some, like goalkeeper Noor Sabri (Iran), midfielder Karrar Jassim (Qatar) and defender Jassim Mohammed Ghulam (Lebanon), played their club football overseas, while others were contracted to Iraqi clubs despite the ongoing chaos. Captain Younis Mahmoud, who plied his trade in Qatar with Al-Gharafa, was the key figure; despite being just 24 the striker had already racked up 55 caps for his country, and was both the team’s most talented and influential player.

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Iraq flew to Bangkok (the competition was held in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia) knowing that they would have to finish above two of Australia, Oman and Thailand to reach the knockout phase. A 1-1 draw with the co-hosts at the Rajamangala Stadium represented nothing more than a satisfactory start, but a brilliant 3-1 victory over pre-tournament favourites Australia a few days later forced the rest of the continent to sit up and take notice. Iraq then needed just a point against Oman to progress, and although they got it in the form of a scoreless stalemate, their rather flat performance showed that there was still plenty of room for improvement.

A Mahmoud goal in the second minute settled Iraqi nerves in their quarter-final against Vietnam, with the captain going on to add another in the 65th minute. Iraq had now already matched their greatest ever Asian Cup showing of 1976, but they weren’t expected to better it by reaching the final after being paired with South Korea in the last four.

Vieira’s side seemed more comfortable as underdogs, though, and their favoured game plan of sitting deep and playing on the counter-attack would be easier to execute against the Taeguk Warriors than the likes of Oman, Vietnam and Thailand. With the back four proving adept at soaking up pressure, Nashat Akram covering every blade of grass in midfield and Mahmoud masterfully holding up the ball, winning free-kicks and running the channels up top, Iraq held on for 120 minutes to force a penalty shoot-out. Hawar Mulla Mohammed, Qusay Munir, Haidar Abdul-Amir and Ahmad Mnajed made no mistake from 12 yards, before Kim Jung-woo’s miss sent the Lions of Mesopotamia through to the final.

Iraqis at home and abroad cheered an unlikely victory, but the celebrations were cut short by news of another tragedy: as delighted citizens flooded into the streets of Baghdad to mark the win, 50 were killed and another 135 injured by two car bombs detonated in the districts of Mansour and Ghadir.

The players were devastated and considered withdrawing from the competition in order to prevent more football-linked attacks, but they were persuaded to continue after seeing a television broadcast which featured a grief-stricken woman who vowed that she would only bury her son after Iraq had played the final against Saudi Arabia.

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“The biggest thing that impacted our morale, persistence and confidence to continue playing for the team was the incident that took place, the woman who lost her son,” said the Al-Ansar midfielder Salih Sadir. “This was a turning point.”

Saudi Arabia were three-time Asian champions and had reached five of the last six finals; that, together with their thrilling 3-2 defeat of Japan in the semi-finals, made them favourites in Jakarta. Iraq made the better start, though, with Munir, Mahmoud and Jassim all going close as the Saudis struggled to find their usual rhythm. Their goalkeeper, Yasser Al Mosailem, was again called into action to deny both Mahmoud and Akram, but there was a growing feeling that Iraq would ultimately be punished for their profligacy in front of goal.

As it happened, they were just biding their time. The winning goal came in the 73rd minute, Mahmoud (a Sunni) heading a corner from Mohammed (a Kurd) into the back of the net to send Iraq delirious. Saudi Arabia threw men forward in search of an equaliser late on, and there were more than a few hearts in mouths when Malek Maaz’s header bounced just over the crossbar in stoppage time. The final whistle sounded moments later, though, and the Lions of Mesopotamia could celebrate one of the greatest achievements in the history of international football.

“The secret was not to sleep. Even early in the morning, I would be looking around the floors to make sure everything was okay,” Vieira told the AFC’s official website on the 10-year anniversary of Iraq’s triumph.

“I would go in the players’ room and drink tea with them to give them confidence. This is my way, but with this way I have won many titles. I knew we could do something at the Asian Cup, and, by luck, I chose the right group of players. But every day, some players lost relatives. It was tough to prepare the team in these circumstances, but it was a great experience and gave me a chance to grow too.”

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Iraq have been drawn alongside Iran, Vietnam and Yemen in Group D for the upcoming edition of the tournament, which begins on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates. Although Srečko Katanec’s side aren’t among the favourites to triumph, they have been tipped as potential dark horses by some observers. Whatever happens in the next few weeks, though, the Lions of Mesopotamia won’t be able to top their incredible achievement of 2007, when a group of footballers from across the sectarian divide gave a fractured nation cause for hope and optimism.

“To be honest, few expected Iraq to go further than the knockout stage… but it was beyond question that every player of our team had his own dream to create the unexpected,” Mahmoud told FIFA.com in the aftermath of that famous night in Jakarta.

“There had been a moment before the tournament kicked off, though, when I looked into my mind and said to myself, ‘Younis, it’s now or never.’”

Football’s biggest fairytale: Remembering Iraq’s unlikely triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup
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