13: Iraq 2007

In July 2007, the AFC Asian Cup took place in four host nations, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Heading into the 14th edition of the tournament all the usual suspects were tipped as favourites for the Cup. South Korea and Iran, Japan and Saudi Arabia and then newcomers to the Asian Football Confederation, Australia. But overlooked and underestimated, was Iraq.

Fans and pundits alike had little expectations for the Lions of Mesopotamia and making it as far as the first knockout round was considered satisfactory. But the Iraqis were a strong unit, having made it to the Quarter Finals of the 2004 Asian Cup and the Semi Finals of the Olympics that same year, falling just short of a Bronze Medal.

Much of that squad had stuck together and were well prepared for their next major tournament. Including Nashat Akram, Younis Mahmoud, Salih Sadir, Hawar Mulla Mohammed and Noor Sabri. They’d had good results in regional tournaments and were a strong regional nation, knocking on the door of success in Asia. The players themselves and indeed the Iraqi federation had set much higher standards in 2007.

But a number of factors looked to go against Iraq. They were drawn in a tough group alongside Oman, co-hosts Thailand and Australia. And they appointed a new head coach, Jorvan Vieira in May, just two months before the start of the competition. It was also right in the middle of the Iraq War and the daily struggles in their home country weighed heavily. There wasn’t a player in the squad whose family had not been directly affected. The impact of war and the country's political climate on the Iraqi national team was something the players had dealt with for years, but the 2007 Asian Cup presented them with an opportunity to bring hope to the nation.

Iraq’s first group match was against Thailand on July 7 in Bangkok. On a soggy pitch in the rain, the hosts went ahead early via a penalty but Iraq managed to gain control of the match and then pull level on 32 minutes. The matched finished 1-1 and although the draw wasn’t the start Iraq wanted, they’d at least secured a point ahead of their second match.

On July 13, it was time to face Australia who were coming off the back of a strong performance at the 2006 World Cup. As the underdogs, Iraq had to impose themselves on the opposition as early as possible and a goal from Nashat Akram on 21 minutes did just that. The Australians were rattled and it took until the 2nd half for them to respond. But in stunning fashion Iraq hit back with two more goals to secure a 3-1 win. This was where the momentum started to build.

Iraq’s third and final group game against Oman ended 0-0 but the point was enough to see them top the group and advance to the knockout rounds. The knockout stage began with a meeting with co-hosts, Vietnam who were perhaps the weakest of the Quarter Finalists. And Iraq dispatched them easily with a 2-0 win. The captain, Younis Mahmoud the hero once again.

Awaiting in the Semi Finals was South Korea. Having already beaten the likes of Australia, Iraq were high on confidence and determined to continue their run. It would prove to be a gruelling match though. No score at the end of 90 minutes and going all the way to penalties. Iraq won the shootout 6-5 to progress the Final.

The stage was set in Jakarta where they would face 3-time winners, Saudi Arabia on July 29. 60,000 fans inside the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium and millions more around the world were watching on to see if Iraq could make history. It was a physical match, full of tension and Iraq dominated play for much of the game but they struggled to find a breakthrough. That was until Younis Mahmoud stepped up once again on 72 minutes. Iraq winning a corner and Mahmoud sending a powerful header into the back of the net.

The tension only grew in the dying minutes as Saudi Arabia pushed for an equaliser, but Iraq held on to become Champions of Asia. For a country torn apart by war, football had brought joy and hope to the nation and left a legacy for generations to come.