Making the impossible possible: When Iraq won the Asian cup
The 21st century has been difficult for Iraq. A Western invasion, the ‘war on terror’ and a sectarian divide were all fundamental factors to the decline of living standards nationwide. Any substantial aid provided was at the mercy of western corruption. The entire war was a feast for scrounging external agents to raid the country for its commodities, leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians dead in its wake.
Then, a US-implemented sectarian political system triggered violence and ignited the flames of carnage.
There certainly hasn’t been much cause for celebration for the people since the turn of the millennium.
Many would think that a people who have faced this much suffering would barely see any light at the end of the tunnel. However, for a single month in the country’s recent history, it felt like everything had changed.
A new generation of Iraqi footballers had emerged in the early 2000s, impressing on a global scale, most notably beating (4-2) a Portuguese team – whose players included the world-renowned Cristiano Ronaldo – at the 2004 Olympics. This same squad then managed to qualify for the 2007 Asian Cup.
''Many of the players had seen close family members and friends killed in the run up to the tournament, witnessing the bloodshed first-hand.''
Jorvan Vieira, the team’s manager at the time, who was hired just 2 months prior, recalled some of the considerable tragedies that they faced on the brink of the tournament:
''Our physio was killed by a bomb in Baghdad two days before we flew out to Bangkok – he was on his way to the travel agent to buy his ticket. Then, upon arrival, two of our players were detained for eight hours by immigration officials. I discovered we didn’t have equipment to train with or even kit. We had problems with the food, the hotel booking. It was a nightmare.''
Many of the players had seen close family members and friends killed in the run up to the tournament, witnessing the bloodshed first-hand.
The group stage started with the hosts, Thailand, with the game ending 1-1. The real challenge lay with regional powerhouse, Australia. A shocking 3-1 win left the Iraqis with the motivation to press onwards to the next round. This result didn’t only surprise the world, but the team themselves, who had booked their return flights home for the day after the end of the group stage of the tournament.
The final group match ended in a 0-0 result against Oman, giving them the key point that they needed to lead the group and progress into the knockout stages. Fans of the team worldwide were picking up momentum, wondering whether the impossible dream, was indeed possible.
The knockout stage commenced with a win against Vietnam (2-0) in the quarter finals, with an in-form Younis Mahmoud scoring both goals to set up a semi-final clash with South Korea, another strong challenger for the title. They held out for a 0-0 draw after extra time to take it to penalties. A save from hero in goal, Noor Sabri, and a miss from Kim Jung-woo took Iraq through, winning the penalty shootout 4-3.
It was a frenzy for the supporters, who’d never seen anything like this. They were ecstatic and simultaneously thunderstruck at reaching the last hurdle. Thousands flooded the streets of Baghdad and other cities, unable to contain their joy. What a moment this was, with no sentiment of sectarian division to be seen anywhere.
Amidst the euphoria, however, two suicide attacks killed 50 people and left 135 injured across separate locations in Baghdad where fans were celebrating the results. Police said the attacks deliberately targeted the jubilant supporters.
The news reached the team, and left them devastated. They even considered pulling out of the final. It was too heart-breaking to witness such elated scenes turning into disasters.
Nashat Akram, the midfield maestro, recalled in a recent television interview, that prior to the final against Saudi Arabia, they received a message from a mother of a teenager who was killed in one of the Baghdad attacks. She had refused to bury her son until they returned home with the trophy. The entire team was in tears in the dressing room after hearing her words. It was this that spurred them on, giving them the determination to bring it home.
The passion was strongly visible in the final game, where Iraq battled relentlessly and dominated to try to secure the win. Whilst Saudi were the favourites, in the 72nd minute star striker Younis Mahmoud rose elegantly to meet a corner from Hawar Mulla Mohammed to powerfully head home what turned out to be the winning goal.
A nation and its diaspora erupted in glee upon the final whistle being blown. Seeing a team that represented all walks of Iraqi life, one that included Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, all hands together lifting the continent’s most prestigious football trophy was something of a miracle. Especially knowing their difficult circumstances.
A number of football pundits and publications have stated the win as football's greatest underdog story and/or achievement.
to be honest, I'm not sure any international achievement tops Iraq winning the 2007 Asian Cup— James Montague (@JamesPiotr) June 30, 2016
According to the Iraqi Body Count (IBC) and reported by Reuters, Baghdad’s 2007 monthly civilian death toll reached its peaks in May and July, but then steadily dropped by December where the number recorded was 246. This was a stark contrast to the 1,683 deaths recorded in January.
A year prior to the tournament, on 16 July 2006, NY Times reported that an average of 100 civilians were killed per day in the country. According to IBC, up to 27,519 civilians were killed in 2006 in comparison to 24,519 killed in 2007.
Many consider whether the success of the team in July 2007 was that pivotal of a moment for peacekeeping in Iraq.
What we can be certain of, through the testimonies of many who witnessed egregious violence, is that these players united a fractured country. Furthermore, light being shed on the Iraq national team from media worldwide was also one of positivity and inspiration - a direct juxtaposition to the seemingly endless, majority negative coverage of the country.
Scenes of Iraqi’s of all sects, religions and ethnic groups together dancing, singing and waving flags side by side all across the globe just further indicated the power of football as a sport. This moment revealed how a game can succeed in encouraging harmony, where politics has many a time failed.
In the 15 years since that memorable day, Iraq still faces similar issues: Western interference, internal corruption and other prevailing problems. Times may have changed but people are still struggling.
A new generation of Iraqi talent have qualified for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, including upcoming stars like Zidane Iqbal and Ali Al-Hamadi. The hope is that this team can restore our former glories. Whether they can replicate the success of the 2007 golden generation or qualify for the World Cup in 2026 is yet to be seen. No doubt this is a huge weight to carry for the team, given the last time Iraq played in the World Cup was in Mexico in 1986.
Indeed, only time will tell for the Lions of Mesopotamia.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_
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