A nation torn apart by war and the football team that defied all odds to achieve the impossible. This is the inspirational story of how Iraq became Champions of Asia.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
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.
Laith: There was no expectations, really. We thought if we can just, you know, have a good run then that’s the most important thing.
Laith: I am Laith Al Naeme.
James: Laith is the Founder of SoccerIraq.net
Laith: I bet you didn’t expect an Iraqi guy with a Scottish accent!
James: You know what? I certainly didn’t haha!
Laith: Ah, brilliant!
Ali: So, the expectations were really, reach the Quarter Finals. That I think was, was satisfactory.
James: That’s Ali Al-Fakhri. He also writes for Soccer Iraq.
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.
Football journalist, Scott McIntyre was covering the tournament in 2007.
Scott: The basis of the squad in ‘04 was really the basis of the squad in ‘07. The likes of Nashat (Akram), of Younis (Mahmoud), of Salih Sadir, Hawar Mulla Mohammed, Noor Sabri in goal. So those kind of guys, so by the time they got to the South East Asian tournament, they’d been together, playing regularly for a long time. You know, they were young guys on the rise, they were big stars in Iraq, they were big stars certainly in the region as well. And they came with, you know a really good pedigree. I mean, even if you look back to that 2004 tournament, they basically sent their Olympic squad to play in the Asian Cup so really, they had no right you know, even to get out of the group in that tournament.
Prior to that they’d had good results in regional tournaments so they were a strong regional nation that was kind of knocking on the door of success in Asia and you could see it building from ‘04 on to ‘07 and they were a strong nation, definitely. They weren’t, you know, whipping boys of the region by any measure and heading into ‘07 they would have expected in their minds to have at least made the knockout stages.
Ali: So we knew we had the talent, we just thought it was a matter of circumstances weren’t really on our favour. But they talked a big game. The players, the captain, Younis Mahmoud and the members of the federation all hyped up the team, saying that we can achieve it.
James: A number of factors looked to go against Iraq. They were drawn in a tough group, alongside Oman, 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.
Scott: I spent a lot of time during the tournament with the team, you know, interviewing them and just socially as well and being with the players. And there wasn’t a player in the squad whose family hadn’t been directly affected by what was happening in the country. I mean, almost everybody in the squad had lost family members, others had had relatives kidnapped and being held and you know, they’re forever checking the news.
Diana: It must have taken tremendous mental power to forget about those daily life struggles and just put everything aside for 90 minutes and just focus on football and play the game. I think that was very brave of them.
James: That’s Diana Al Shammari.
The impact of war and the country's political climate on the Iraqi national team was nothing new, but the 2007 Asian Cup presented them with an opportunity to bring hope to the Iraqi people.
James: 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….
Laith: The first game against Thailand, not the best start, especially it being in Bangkok. You just thought, “here we go, this might not go our way”.
James: But Iraq managed to gain control of the match and then pull level on 32 minutes.
And that’s the way it finished. A draw from their opening game perhaps wasn’t the start Iraq wanted but 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 just after half time for them to respond. But in stunning fashion Iraq hit back with two more goals.
Scott: You know really, the second match was where the momentum started to build, that was a very impressive performance. I think it certainly surprised a lot of people in Australia because they hadn’t really seen this team before or been familiar with the players or any of the history of the team or indeed the history, more broadly of football in Iraq.
But the result, and maybe even more than the result, the performance in that second match caught a lot of people in Australia by surprise and probably made a lot of people in the tournament sit up and take notice as well. That, hang on, this is gonna be a serious team.
Ali: After beating Australia in very convincing fashion we thought, “you know what, maybe they’re right? Maybe we can go all the way”. It kinda set the tone that you know what, maybe this could be the time where we could finally win the Asian Cup.
James: Iraq’s third group game against Oman ended in nil-all draw but it was enough to advance to the knockout rounds.
Scott: You know, there’s not too many tournaments where you’re gonna top your group with five points but they did and it was enough for them to get out of the group, fairly comfortably in the end.
James: The knockout stage began with a meeting with hosts, Vietnam who were conceivably the weakest of the Quarter Finalists. And Iraq dispatched them easily with a 2-0 win. The captain, Younis Mahmoud the hero once again.
Laith: He was just unstoppable, really, in the tournament. This was a moment which sort of stood out the most I think, in his career, because he really managed to sort of extinguish himself as a leader. He just dealt with the pressure and really conducted himself incredibly. So by scoring the double in that game, taking off his arm band, the captain's arm band with the Iraqi flag on it, and putting it on his forehead was just - it’s an expression we say here in Arabic that means, you know you’re putting the country on your head. So he was basically showing that, “I will do this for us and I will lead us the way we should be lead, as one.”
People started to really, really take notice. We’d advanced to the Semi Finals of the Asian Cup and have already went against the odds by doing so.
James: 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 into the Final.
It would prove to be a gruelling match. Nil-nil at the end of 90 minutes and finishing on penalties.
Scott: South Korea are always gonna be you know, a strong team, a lot of players playing at big clubs in Europe and so on. So yeah, that was a match that they probably weren’t expected to win, it went all the way to penalties. And I think by that stage of the tournament with Japan and Saudi Arabia in the other side of the group, everyone, or certainly all the neutrals were kind of hoping that the dream would continue and yeah.
James: What was it about the Iraqi team that made them such a fierce competitor and kept them going throughout the tournament?
Ali: They wanted to bring hope back home, they wanted to bring happiness back home and they know that winning the tournament or even just doing good in the tournament will bring huge joy to the people. As the tournament progressed, with every win, with every achievement they could see people, you know in the streets celebrating and it was the main motivator for them and that’s what separated them from every other team. Because every other team were there, you know, even if they were nationalistic they weren’t doing it for the same reasons, they were doing it for pride not for hope, not for joy and I think that set them apart from everyone else.
Scott: The thing that really stood out was the camaraderie amongst the group, that everybody really liked being involved with each other. You know, there was Shia and Sunni Muslims in the group, there were Kurdish players in the group as well. But you know there was no sense of division within the squad. So you could see that right from the beginning when the team came together and then after when Jorvan Vieira came in as well, who's quite a character in his own right, I think he even you know, made that bond even stronger. So, if you’ve got that kind of belief in each other and the sense that you want to play for each other and obviously they’re playing for things that are even bigger than the team, you know that’s a fantastic place to start. And you add into that some of the players that they had, I mean, certainly they had technically wonderful players and a really strong group spirit.
James: The stage was set for the Final in Jakarta against 3-time winners, Saudi Arabia on July 29.
Laith: I think the world wanted us to win. We were the underdogs, Saudi Arabia are a strong nation, you know they’ve qualified to the World Cup a number of times. We haven’t been there since ‘86.
Scott: It was a perfect venue for everything because you know, it’s an old, crumbling stadium, that, Gelora Bung Karno in Jakarta. There’s sixty thousand people there, there’s trouble with the lights and the power and all this. You know, it’s a typical kind of Asian Cup Final where things don’t work properly.
James: On the pitch, however, it was a match full of tension.
Ali: You could just see that it was a very, very violent game, physically. There was lots of kicking, lots of spitting between the players, you could even hear swear words being thrown around. I guess that could be seen as a negative thing but it just showed how much they wanted it.
James: Iraq dominated play but couldn’t find a breakthrough. But with 20 minutes remaining, it finally came.
Laith: 70, 75 minutes, we win a corner and who else but Younis Mahmoud.
Laith: I can just remember the room erupting. Just the celebrations itself, Iraqis are passionate people, so the celebrations itself from the players, if that’s what the players are doing then you can only imagine what fans, what Iraqis are doing all around the world were acting like once that goal went in.
James: The tension only grew in the dying minutes as Saudi Arabia pushed for an equaliser. But Iraq held on.
Laith: Following the full time whistle, we were dancing with joy in our living room. Immediately the Iraqi music was aired all over Iraqi television. You know, it was a triumph for the country.
Diana: I remember coming home in 2007 and my Dad was actually crying and I thought there was like, something happening in our family back in Iraq, and then I asked him.
James: This is Diana again.
Diana: And he said that the team won the Asian Cup and he just finished calling his brothers to talk about it and celebrate. It was the first time I’d seen him crying and it was because of a football match.
Laithe: The players fought for each other. They were a real family and a real inspiration to everyone. This was a massive victory and it was a message to the government.
James: For a country torn apart by war, football provided a welcome distraction, even for just a brief moment.
Ali: Against all the odds, against everyone else's expectations, they went out and they won it. And they did it in convincing fashion, in clean fashion. There was no dubious refereeing decisions that helped us get there, it was all clean it was all honorable. And it showcased to the entire world that would could still keep on going and that we can get to the top. And that really lifted a nation.
Diana: People forgot everything about the war and seeing the team make it to Final of the Asian Cup and actually win it, it brought some joy to the Iraqi people.
Laith: They managed to put joy and celebration in faces of millions of Iraqis that no politician and no government has been able to do in a long, long time.
James: And in football terms, the win has left a lasting impression.
Ali: What happened in that tournament shaped Iraqi football going forward.
Scott: There’s no question that’s it’s left a legacy and inspired you know, future generations of Iraqi players.
Diana: The young generation right now would look back at it and learn from them.
Laith: To this day the players aspire to 2007, they talk about 2007. It’s something that’s changed football in Iraq forever.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Scott McIntyre, Laith Al Naeme, Ali Al-Fakhri and Diana Al Shammari.
Music featured in this episode comes from Chris Zabriskie, Podington Bear, Josh Woodward and Broke for Free under Creative Commons.
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