It was around eleven in the evening when the melody of gunfire and car horns erupted piercing (literally) the night sky. This is how the residents of Baghdad celebrate a victory for the national team, however what goes up must come down, not just the bullets in this case!
The Iraqi national team had just squeezed past the hosts Bahrain (after extra-time and penalties) during this year’s biannual Gulf Cup of Nations semi-final. The celebrations were both spectacular and protracted. The ‘the lions of Mesopotamia’ eventually lost the final 2-1 to the UAE (after extra-time, once again) although the tournament had been a success for the nation and it’s near fanatical followers.
In 1996 Iraq were positioned 139th in the FIFA world rankings, today they are 89th and could be higher (Brazil, somehow coming in at 18th, the federation setting its own decompartmentalised criteria). The ‘lions’ history includes four Arab Nations Cup wins, three Gulf Cups victories, the Asian Games and the Asian Cup, which they won in 2007. The greatest moments in the nation’s football history were of course the qualification for the 1986 Mexico World Cup, and the 2007 Asian Cup triumph.
The former Arsenal winger Anders Limpar once likened manager George Graham’s regime as ‘living in Iraq under Saddam’. It was, however, Uday, the wicked and cruel son of Saddam, who was given control of Iraqi football by his father in 1984. The ‘beautiful game’ becoming anything but for many years until their qualification for the 2004 Olympics (by which time Uday had been killed during a military operation in the northern city of Mosul during the coalition occupation).
For the national team public humiliation in the form of head shaving became one of the milder punishments for defeat. Other, more sinister sentences included; crawling through gravel and then immersion in sewage (to ensure infection of wounds), playing a game with a concrete ball and torture with various devices, including a rectum stretching instrument.
It would seem the only person to oppose the tyrannical Uday was the revered ‘Ammo Baba’ (‘Uncle Father’ in Arabic), his being a wonderful story. ’Baba’ learnt to play football watching British soldiers stationed in Iraq after World War II and played in Iraq’s first official international match against Morocco. He famously scored a number of memorable goals, allegedly stirring the interest of clubs such as Liverpool and Celtic. He rebuffed any advances and went on to manage the national side, leading them to the 1986 World Cup.
Baba and Uday were at odds with regards to administration and tactics; it was only Saddam’s protection that ensured longevity for both Baba’s career and life!
Fast forward to the present day, a war with neighbours Iran, a couple of invasions and an insurgency negotiated, and the country can be moderately optimistic. Qualification for the 2014 World Cup looks like an increasingly difficult prospect, although it was always going to be in a group including Japan and Australia (who have practically transcended their ‘emerging nation’ status).
The great Brazilian Zico had a short tenure as manager resigning due to a contractual dispute with the Iraqi FA (thankfully not Uday!). Meanwhile the current manager and former player Hakeem Shaker’s record has been admirable, although surely the re-introduction of a foreign, ideally European manager is almost inevitable in the near future (security issues not withstanding). The transfer of knowledge and integration of enhanced discipline and organisation would invariably benefit the side. And although a number of foreign coaches have held the position perhaps a big name acquisition will transpire in the not too distant future.
During November 2011 the country played their first World Cup qualifier on home soil for many years, then, were subsequently banned from hosting home games due to power failure during a qualifier with Jordan. FIFA have since affirmed Iraq’s eligibility to host games (although not for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers).
There is certainly a new found optimism here, not only within football circles but society in general. Although still a ‘searching diagonal ball’ away from total calm, the violence, sectarian or otherwise has dropped dramatically from the horrific heights seen in recent years. Incidentally the national team is an eclectic mix of both the Sunni and Shiite sects of the Muslim faith, another fine example of solidarity within the ‘Beautiful Game’.
Further enhancement of the ‘feel-good’ factor has appeared in the form of a brand new purpose built stadium and complex (secondary ground, training facilities, hotels and additional sporting facilities) in the southern city of Basrah. With a reported capacity of around 70,000 and costing in the region of £500 million, the ground is due for completion in 2013 and scheduled to host the Gulf Cup of Nations in 2015. It is an impressive structure and a suitable example of the ambition of the country as a whole.
Iraq now appears to be treading a path towards peace and stability, along with it, the evolution of its football. The locals here love their football, most of the younger generation seem to support ‘Barca’ or ‘Real’, and all follow the English Premier League.
A couple of Iraqi players (or at least Iraqi born) are plying their trade in England at present, Yaser Kasim is on the books at Brighton & Hove Albion (although presently on loan at conference side Luton) and the Baghdad born (British raised) Shwan Jalal is with Bournemouth of league one.
How long before we see the first Iraqi player starring in the Premier League?
By Steve Lamb
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona