On the eve of the 2007 Asian Cup, Iraq was a nation in disarray. A country that had been devastated by bombings and lived with the ever-present shadow of death for nigh on two decades. A country riven by internal strife between the differing factions of Sunni, Shia and Kurds. It was a country for whom football ought to have been an afterthought at that time; perhaps a pleasant distraction from the dangers of everyday life. But it was a country on the verge of its finest footballing moment.
The national team wasn’t immune from the impact of the domestic turmoil. Many players had lost relatives in the conflict. Others suffered kidnapping threats over their involvement in the multi-ethnic national team, or suffered violence to themselves or their families from the criminal gangs. Only a handful of players turned up to the first pre-tournament training session led by their Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, who had only been appointed two months before the tournament kicked off. Those preparatory sessions all had to take place outside Iraq for security reasons.
Ali Abbas, a member of the 2007 squad recalled, “We sat as a squad and talked about the sad stuff that was happening in Iraq and we knew that if we were to have success at the Asian Cup then we could unite the country and make everyone happy. We sat down in the rooms before we went out and we promised ourselves that we would give everything we had and we would not let our people down.”
To add to the turmoil, tragedy would hit the squad on the eve of the tournament. The team physio was killed by a bomb in Baghdad just two days before the competition would begin. His wife was due to give birth, and so the physio had requested to return home from the team’s training camp in Jordan to go and be with her. He was killed by a car bomb while finalising his return to the squad. “He was on his way to the travel agent to buy his ticket,” recalled Vieira. On top of this the team would experience difficulties themselves on arrival at the tournament. “Two of our players were detained for eight hours by immigration officials,” Vieira continued. “I discovered we didn’t have equipment to train with or even kit. We had problems with the food, the hotel bookings. It was a nightmare.”
This was about as far from an ideal tournament preparation as you could imagine. But within the confines of the squad, there was a harmony, a strength of will, a unifying camaraderie. Religious and cultural differences were put aside. All came together, to play together in what would become a symbol of the ideals of the troubled nation. While the country itself was fracturing over religious and ethnic divisions, its footballers were a beacon of hope demonstrating an example of how Iraqis could work together. The squad contained players of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish backgrounds. As such it would have been so easy for the squad to be as divided as the nation. The players and coach agreed together to leave religion at the door. Unusually for a Middle-Eastern team, there would be no joint prayers in the changing rooms in the interests of maintain harmony.
Unsurprisingly, managing the psychological aspect was no easy task, but the genial Vieira was the guiding hand on ensuring the unity within the camp and that the issues they faced both individually and as a country were used to push them forwards rather than handicap them. “You don’t know whether to cry with them, to try to explain to them to be strong,” Vieira said referencing the traumatic death of their physio and friend. He focused to a greater degree on forming bonds, and caring for the players, getting close to them, ensuring they felt supported and indeed loved, so that they would perform for him when the intensity of the tournament got going.
It was a team with some quality though, in spite of their troubles. At the previous Asian Cup in 2004, they progressed from a tough group thanks to a dramatic victory over the Asian powerhouse of Saudi Arabia, only to fall to the hosts and eventual finalists, China. At the Athens Olympic Games just a few weeks later they topped their opening group, thanks in no small part to an impressive opening rout of Portugal. Iraq made it all the way to the semi-finals, eliminating Australia in the quarter-finals, before falling to Paraguay. They narrowly missed out on a medal by a single goal in defeat to the might of Italy. This was a group of players already used to over-achieving by their own standards. Along with the team that made it to the 1986 World Cup in what was a very different time for Iraq, this was the finest team they had ever produced.
The 2007 Asian Cup had seen participation numbers increase across the continent, and while much of that was at the lower end of the scale, not troubling those aiming for glory, there was one very notable addition who would be in the mix when the going got tough. Australia had made the decision to leave the Oceania Football Confederation and join the AFC in search of a regular higher standard of opposition to compete with, not to mention a shot at automatic World Cup places; something which Oceania was unlikely to ever earn.
They had reached the 2006 World Cup as an OFC member though, and signified their credentials as a future Asian power by beating Japan 3-1 in the group stage and qualifying for the last 16. Australia’s arrival, while suiting their needs, would also serve as a test for the stronger Asian nations, providing another tough opponent where there were at times too few real tests.
The tournament would be hosted across four Southeast Asian nations. Mohammed Bin Hammam, the now disgraced former FIFA bigwig and AFC supremo, had proposed the four nations hosting idea, with the tournament spread across Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, though he would later regret the idea calling it his “mistake” and citing the financial and logistic difficulties in organising an event across four countries. Added to this was the fact that of the eight tournament venues, four would host just a single match each; the final simultaneous group matches. So in effect it was a tournament of four stadiums in four cities across four countries.
Iraq had qualified quite comfortably for the 2007 finals, joining China in navigating a way out of a group also containing Singapore and Palestine. But given all that they had gone through already, Iraqi expectations were not high on the eve of the tournament. “We were expecting that it would be mere participation and then we’d leave the competition,” said Salih Sadir, one of the Iraq squad member in 2007. Drawn to face hosts Thailand, Oman and the newcomers Australia, they were far from certain of being able to make it beyond the group stage, let alone troubling the final stages.
An opening match draw against Thailand did little to alter that thought. Playing in the stifling humidity of early July in Bangkok, it was a tough opening clash. Indeed, the weather was to be a significant factor on opening day, with an earlier torrential downpour delaying the opening ceremony, though it was merely a light drizzle by kick off. Thailand got off to the best of starts with striker Sutee Suksomkit converting a 6th minute penalty to give the hosts a very early lead after veteran Kiatisuk Senamuang, a player given the impressive nickname “Zico”, received a shove in the back from Iraq defender Ali Rehema. The Korean referee pointed to the spot despite vehement Iraqi protests. It was a lead they were unable to maintain to half time though, with Younis Mahmoud equalising for Iraq on the half hour mark after they enjoyed a period of sustained pressure on the Thai goal. Thailand forced the pace through much of the match with an attacking line up, but there was to be no winner with the teams sharing the opening day spoils.
A difficult start then, but in the next game against debutants Australia everything changed. A convincing 3-1 win over one of the pre-tournament favourites suddenly saw belief coursing through Iraqi veins. Where previously there had been a resignation to a tournament of struggle, now there was a real belief that something special could happen. Back home, people were starting to take notice too, which served to inspire the players yet further.
As much as Iraq were rewarded for their attacking intentions and neat play though, the fact remains that the Australians gifted Iraq the win through shoddy defending and a goalkeeping howler. Iraq’s opener came thanks to the usually reliable Mark Schwarzer remaining rooted to his line as a harmless free kick from Nashat Akram crept past him. Mark Viduka equalised just after the interval with a powerful towering header, but then a loose pass in the midfield from Tim Cahill gifted the ball to Iraq and Hawar Mohammed duly punished them by firing Iraq ahead again.
It would soon get even better for Iraq, as Lucas Neill gave the ball away to Mahdi Karim at the back a few minutes from time and his shot deflected into the path Karrar Jassim Mohammed who had the simple task of passing the ball into an unguarded net to seal a historic win. For Australia and their under-fire coach Graham Arnold, the chances of progression were now on a knife edge, but for Iraq there was the real prospect of a prolonged run in the tournament.
Iraq confirmed their place in the next round with a comfortable 0-0 draw with Oman. A mightily relieved Australia joined them after thrashing Thailand 4-0. For the second Asian Cup running Iraq were through to the knockout rounds. Iraq’s reward for topping their group ahead of the favourites Australia was a quarter final with Vietnam; the only remaining hosts. However, since Vietnam had progressed as runners-up in their group, their home advantage would be no more and they had to travel to the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok for this clash.
Less than two minutes had been played when Iraq took a firm grip of the contest and stole an early lead through Younis Mahmoud. It was a lead that Iraq would maintain comfortably throughout and one that was extended by Mahmoud again midway through the second half. Iraq had kept Vietnam at arm’s length throughout and deservedly took their place in the semi-finals for the first time in 31 years.
Back home, the excitement levels were palpably building. “People’s support for us started increasing. We started seeing that we are unifying the people,” Sadir said. “The players became determined to bring the cup back to Baghdad. Every time we won, we return to listen and watch the response, and reaction from our families.” With Iraq now firmly in the latter stages of the tournament, that response became increasingly excited.
Iraq would face South Korea in the semi-finals in what would prove a cagey arm-wrestle of a match. With neither side able to find a way past each other’s disciplined defences in 120 minutes of play in Kuala Lumpur. A penalty shoot-out was the end result, the same means by which South Korea had edged past Iran in the previous round. But those who live by the penalty die by the penalty, and after the first six shots had all been scored, South Korea’s Yeom Ki-Hun missed his side’s fourth effort before seeing Ahmad Mnajed convert Iraq’s fourth. Kim Jung-Woo then had to score Korea’s fifth kick to keep them in it. He missed, sending Iraq into dreamland and a first ever Asian Cup Final.
This victory sent thousands of Iraqis onto the streets of Baghdad in celebration, but the celebrations would take a tragic turn. Ali Abbas recalled “We were sitting after training before the final and then all of a sudden we heard a car bomb happened back home and many people had lost their lives.” Terrorists targeted those celebrations, killing fifty in two separate attacks. Thirty died in the first blast in the Mansour district when a car exploded in a crowd of cheering fans. And a further twenty died less than an hour later in the second blast when a suspected suicide car bomber blew his car up in the midst of dozens of cars filled with supporters in the south-eastern neighbourhood of Ghadir. More than a hundred were injured in addition to those killed.
With the final imminent, this tragedy caused turmoil in the squad far from home. Some of the players didn’t want to go on. The risk of further bloodshed was a price simply too high to pay for the sake of a football tournament, first ever final or not. It was the reaction of one bereaved mother, whose son had died while celebrating the semi-final victory, which convinced the team that they could not only go on and pay the final, but win it for their long-suffering people.
This woman had appeared on Iraqi television saying she was refusing to bury her son until Iraq had returned home as champions. “The biggest thing that impacted our morale and persistence and confidence to continue playing for the team…was the incident that took place, the woman who lost her son,” Sadir said. “This was a turning point.”
Abbas recalls the same woman. “She said on TV that she just wanted us to win and that’s what will make her happy and forget about her son.” The squad held an emotional meeting amidst the turmoil of the build-up to the final. “We sat down and said let’s do it for her and for her son,” said Abbas. “And that was a real motivation for us. To make others happy, and it was not just for ourselves.” Despite all of their doubts and the ever-present threat of more disaster, the team decided to continue, refusing to be beaten by those who would do harm, aiming to give more for those at home to cheer. As Vieira said, “We had to win this competition.”
And so, on 29th July 2007, Iraq took on regional heavyweights and three-time Asian Cup champions, Saudi Arabia, for the biggest prize in the country’s sporting history.
In a historic first final for Iraq, the odds weren’t in favour of a win for Iraq up against a far more experienced team in Saudi Arabia. And yet Vieira was confident as the match began. “I felt well and was secure that we could do something,” he said “because of my relationship with the players. They have so much confidence. They were so sure and they wanted to win because it is very important for their country.”
The opening half had been a tense, close period which saw few chances for either side. It had been fairly even as the second half progressed, but had threatened to turn in the Saudis favour when a fierce shot from forward Taiseer Al-Jassam on the hour mark produced a fabulous save from the Iraqi keeper Noor Sabri, diving at full stretch to prevent the goal bound strike from beating him.
But the decisive moment in the match wold come at the other end of the pitch around ten minutes later. Following a pattern of play that began with a Saudi corner almost providing a headed chance for Osama Hawsawi, the play soon turned into a quick Iraqi break from which they earned a corner of their own. Iraq midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed’s corner was lofted over to the far post and the cross evaded the Saudi keeper Yasser Al-Mosailem who flapped at it as it floated past. Gratefully accepting the gift was Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud who had lost his marker Saud Khariri, caught ball watching at a crucial moment. Mahmoud made no mistake with his header which evaded the defenders guarding the goal line in their keeper’s absence and nestled in the back of the net. As if to signify the unity of the multi-ethnic squad, this was a goal converted by a Sunni Muslim following a cross from an Iraqi Kurd.
The Saudis weren’t beaten yet and fought back strongly. Their best chance to equalise came in the dying seconds when Malek Mouath headed his chance downwards only to see it bounce up and over the bar to safety, after Iraq had failed to clear the ball in a last gasp panic. Once the ensuing goal-kick was taken the final whistle blew to herald Iraq as Asian champions for the first time; sending the team and indeed their nation, wild with delight.
The mood was summed up by Waleed Tabra, the team’s media officer who told Al-Jazeera “It is the first time we made it. These are fantastic moments for Iraq football and for all Iraqi people. Hundreds of thousands of people in every city are celebrating the victory. My family said it is something unbelievable… People don’t know what to do; they’re all crying with happiness.”
As the players made their way to collect the Asian Cup trophy, each member of the squad sported black armbands to honour those killed in their homeland. Back in Iraq, there was gunfire that night though on this occasion it was celebratory shots being fired into the air, to salute the unlikely victory. There would thankfully be no repeat of the horrific scenes following the semi-final win. Thousands of fans filled the streets, dancing and waving flags to the backdrop of thousands of blaring car horns. Younis Mahmoud, captain, goal scorer and player of the tournament noted, “The Iraqi people are very, very passionate about football, and words can’t describe how much they needed that moment of joy in what was a period of such devastation.”
The victorious Iraq coach, Vieira, had brought his short term as Iraqi coach to a stunning conclusion. “I congratulate all the players and staff of Iraq. I am happy for the people in Iraq, they deserve to be happy.” Vieira added, “I will never forget this because it was a special situation in special circumstances. You bring happiness for one country, not just one team. That is the most important.”
For a team representing a country in the midst of problems of a far more serious nature than mere sport, this victory for a team featuring Sunni and Shia Muslims and Kurds playing alongside each other had brought members from all of those factions and communities out onto the streets in celebration.