Everyone loves an underdog story. Football is no stranger to it. West Germany’s 1954 World Cup triumph merely nine years after the Second World War, Iceland’s historic win over England at UEFA Euro 2016, Leicester City’s Premier League victory in the 2015-16 season, are but a few fairytales etched in footballing folklore.
But the story of the Iraqi team’s victory at the 2007 Asian Cup stands out even amongst all these pieces of legend.
The tale has every ingredient required to make a sumptuous dish. From players who were in exile, to a country torn apart by war, to death threats as frequent as spam mails, it was one helluva journey.
But for a brief moment, the war-torn country came together as one, as striker Younis Mahmoud’s header hit the back of the net.
But how did one of the world’s most unstable countries win a major competition?
Iraq’s success at the Asian Cup was no fluke. They were arguably the Middle-East’s best team in the mid-1980s, and the nation also qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1986. But Iraqi football in the 80s and 90s was controlled by one man – Uday Hussein, the son of the country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Uday had a violent reputation which was cemented when he drunkenly murdered Saddam’s personal valet in 1988. It was clear that even as the eldest son, Uday was not fit to be Saddam’s successor and would never be allowed to rule Iraq. Instead, Uday made a fiefdom in Iraqi sports, becoming the president of both the Iraqi National Olympic Committee and the nation’s football federation.
The man had grown a taste for football after founding a new club called Al-Rasheed SC and he used every lever at his disposal to make sure it dominated the Iraqi League by forcing teams to hand over their best players under threats of imprisonment or worse.
It was here that he began to torture players, ordering beatings and head shavings if a player didn’t perform well, which became increasingly hard to do given the effects of the Iraq-Iran war, a brutal conflict that would take a million lives, and later the first Gulf War in 1990, followed by international sanctions and isolation.
Uday’s answer was to use a more aggressive form of motivation. Several players have defected to tell the story of how Iraq’s national team players were tortured. An infamous example was the time he made the entire squad play football with a concrete ball as punishment for not qualifying for the 1994 World Cup finals. Or the time when, after going out in the group stage at the 2000 Asian Cup, three players were beaten in a torture chamber located underneath the Iraqi Olympic HQ as Uday blamed them for the embarrassment. Being a footballer in Iraq was as dangerous as swimming in a lake full of crocodiles – atrocities could be inflicted upon you at any moment.
The Second Gulf War eventually brought about Uday’s demise when he was killed in a shootout with US Forces. Coalition forces eventually found Uday’s torture chamber underneath Iraq’s Olympic HQ, which included a bed frame connected to the main electric supply, a sarcophagus with long nails on the inside, and a medieval device used to rip open a person’s anus.
But Iraq had a new problem.
The much-maligned Saddam Hussein and his sons were gone, however, chaos was left in their wake and a vicious sectarian civil war broke out. Iraq managed to send a team to the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, even though German journeyman coach Bernd Stange quit before the tournament. Stange would explain that his driver was executed in the run-up to the tournament and he feared for his life.
However, at the tournament, a new generation of players that he had blooded in qualification excelled, including Hawar Mulla Mohammed, a Kurdish attacking midfielder, and Nashat Akram, the midfield engine of the team. That was when a young striker called Younis Mahmoud burst onto the scene, scoring in a dramatic 4-2 victory over a Portugal side that consisted of Cristiano Ronaldo. Iraq made it to the semi-finals, losing to Paraguay and finishing fourth. But the Olympic experience preceded what would perhaps be Iraq’s greatest ever triumph.
By 2007, as many as a hundred people were assassinated in Baghdad daily. Unsurprisingly, no home international matches could take place in Baghdad, so Iraq’s home games were played in the UAE. Despite losing their opening game 2-0 to Singapore, Iraq roared back to win their group and qualify for the Asian Cup. But the team’s preparations were a complete shambles.
Aside from the threats from various sectarian militia groups who despised the fact that the Iraqi national team contained Shia, Sunni and Kurds working together, criminal gangs were trying to extort the players by threatening them and their families.
Every player had to leave the country, each having a story about the moment they decided to leave. Hawar Mulla Mohammed told a story of how he would have to turn up to training with a machine gun. Noor Sabri, the goalkeeper, heard that his brother-in-law had been killed shortly before the tournament. Haitham Kadhim saw a teammate killed during a match.
So, as the team gathered in Amman, the capital of Jordan – and now home to a million Iraqi refugees – not much was expected of them. They were without a coach, traumatized and depleted.
Enter Jorvan Viera, a Brazilian coach who had converted to Islam and had enjoyed some success coaching in North Africa.
“These boys have had to deal with many, many problems: social, political, internal. Most of these players don’t know where they are. Every minute the situation changes,” he said. Viera had undoubtedly walked into the lion’s den. In the run up to the tournament, he had lost a physiotherapist who had been killed in a suicide bombing. News had also filtered through that another national squad, the Iraqi Youth Taekwondo Team, hadn’t made it to Amman. They had all been executed and buried in shallow graves near the Jordanian border.
But, in a short period of time, Viera managed to restore calm and bring some unity to the dressing room before leaving for the tournament jointly hosted in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Iraq, of course, flew economy class.
They didn’t have the best of starts to the tournament, with Younis Mahmoud, now the undisputed figurehead upfront, salvaging a 1-1 draw against Thailand. What happened next was unexpected as Iraq pulled off the shock of the tournament, beating one of the favourites, Australia, 3-1.
In the quarter-finals, Younis Mahmoud scored twice as they beat Vietnam, setting up a semi-final clash against South Korea. As the team progressed, thousands and thousands of Iraqis would take to the streets in increasing numbers to celebrate their country’s footballing achievement, flying the Iraqi flag openly on the streets for the first time in years.
The semi-final was no different. The game ended in a 0-0 stalemate and went to penalties, with Noor Sabri saving the final kick. But, as the team celebrated, and Baghdad celebrated with them, a suicide bomber quietly approached an ice cream parlour full of football fans in the capital, thus taking 30 lives along with him in the fatal attack.
That night, 20 more fans were killed across the city in suicide attacks, as were five more, accidentally, due to people firing their guns victoriously in the air. The Iraqi team, ecstatic in the aftermath of triumph, was shattered by the news that their victory had indirectly led to the death of dozens of their compatriots. Nashat Akram, Younis Mahmoud and Jorvan Viera would later explain how the team sat in silence in the dressing room watching the carnage unfold on TV.
They held a meeting to discuss pulling out of the tournament.
But on TV, they watched as a bereaved mother was interviewed. Her young son, Haider, had been murdered in the attack. Umm Haider, Mother of Haider, as she would become known, begged the team to continue in memory of him, vowing not to bury him until they won the title.
In an emotional final, Iraq took on regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. Younis Mahmoud struck with the header of destiny, scoring the winning goal in a tight 1-0 victory, clinching Iraq their first and only Asian Cup title.
Despite the risk and the bloodshed of previous weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were back on the streets to celebrate. The team would return to Baghdad, to be met by the Prime Minister and Umm Haider.
Younis Mahmoud used the platform to criticize the US occupation.
“I want America to go out. Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn’t invade Iraq and hopefully, it will be over soon.”
Mahmoud would be nominated for FIFA’s World Player of the Year award and move to Qatar after being denied a move to Europe due to visa restrictions on his family. Midfielder Nashat Akram went a step further when he was actually signed by Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Manchester City side, But the British government refused to issue a work permit for the player. Despite winning the Asian Cup, and despite Britain’s culpability in Iraq’s destruction, the British government decided that Iraq wasn’t ranked high enough by FIFA to warrant a work permit. He would later move to the Netherlands.
After July 2007, US military statistics revealed that the number of civilian deaths dramatically decreased from 26,000 to just over 10,000 in 2008. The US Military surge was partially responsible for this.
But in part, it was also because the Lions of Mesopotamia – even if it was only briefly – reminded a fractured country that they were greater than the sum of their parts.