There might have been hardly an Iraqi fan in Jakarta’s Bung Karno stadium on
July 29, 2007, but it hardly mattered, not any more. The Iraq national team had got used to not playing in front of their own supporters. Baghdad, with its burning sectarianism, had long been off-limits for the game’s fans, managers and, of course, its players.

Four years of assassinations, kidnap, war and, before that, state-sponsored tyranny had crippled the country and destroyed its football league. The Lions of Mesopotamia, a rare beacon of national unity and pride that brought Shia, Sunni and Kurd together, was a homeless tribe, playing to near-empty, shabbily-kept stadiums in Dubai or Aleppo or Amman. Yet here they were, celebrating beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the Final of the Asian Cup in Indonesia to become continental champions and, with it, a shot at the Confederations Cup.

Younis Mahmoud, the striker named “Desert Fox” for his uncanny ability to silently find himself in the right place at the right time, was held aloft in almost sacrificial reverence in front of the few Iraqi flags that dotted the stands after scoring the solitary goal. It was singularly the most romantic against-the-odds sporting story of recent times; of a team that had overcome huge odds and won Asia’s biggest prize against a background of bloodshed and chaos.

In the modern history of Iraqi football, victory and unspeakable horror have become intertwined with depressing regularity. While always being considered a regional power, Iraq didn’t actually make the World Cup finals until Mexico 86. And it wasn’t until years later that the truth emerged about the team’s motivational techniques.

Concrete ball
Saddam Hussein’s unhinged son Uday had been handed the Olympic association to run – which he did in typically bloodthirsty style, torturing players with electrical cables following bad results. One failed World Cup qualification bid saw Uday force the team to play barefoot with a concrete ball. When the Americans stormed the Olympic HQ in 2003 they found a torture rack in the basement, though Iraqis greeted the news with only faint surprise.

Ahmed-Rahim Hamed, a young striker during Mexico 86, who coached the Iraqi team in 2007 despite fleeing Baghdad after receiving death threats, paid a high price for a bad game. “You knew that if you didn’t play well, Uday would do something bad,” Rahim recalled. “I loved Kevin Keegan and I had a perm like him. After one game [that Iraq lost] Uday shaved everyone’s hair. That’s when I lost my perm.”

A month before that victorious night in Indonesia, I had followed “Captain Rahim”, as the players called him, and the Iraqi team to Amman, Jordan, where they were due to play a regional tournament against the likes of hated rivals Iran and Syria. The team’s newly-appointed Brazilian manager, Jorvan Vieira, had taken refuge from the ferocious sun in the shadows of the King Abdullah stadium during his first training session.

Vieira didn’t know the players well; they weren’t too familiar with him either. “This is the hardest job in the world, definitely,” he told me. “These boys – I have to deal with many, many problems: social, political, internal. Most of these players don’t know where they are. Every minute the situation changes.”

It changed so often, in fact, that one member of the team’s staff never made it to Amman. “We lost our physio two days before we got here,” said Vieira. “A bomb exploded in Baghdad and he was passing by. He was on his way to the travel agent to buy his ticket to come here.”

The dangers were such that most players chose not to return home. Goalkeeper Noor Sabri had seen his brother-in-law killed a few weeks previously. Midfielder Haitham Kadhim watched as gunmen stormed on to the pitch during a match in Baghdad to execute one of his team-mates.

“I’d lost two members of my family,” explained Hawar Mulla Mohammed, the team’s Kurdish striker who this season became the first Iraqi to play, and score, in the Champions League with Anorthosis of Cyprus. ”It’s difficult when you have no safety. I had to pick up my two guns before going to practice because I’d been threatened. You can buy guns anywhere in Baghdad. You need them. I don’t go back any more.”

Every member of the team had been threatened on two fronts: by insurgents, who feared this single remaining totem of Iraqi nationalistic pride, and by criminals, who targeted the players and their families for ransom. To make sure they stay out of their clutches, almost all of the players ply their trade in more lucrative, and safer, leagues in Qatar or Saudi Arabia – an issue which is starting to breed resentment back in Iraq.

Vieira’s job in securing Iraq’s first major piece of silverware was immense. He was fourth choice for the job but managed to knock together a team and get them to the Asian Cup on a shoestring, flying economy class on a gruelling 16-hour flight to south-east Asia, with just four weeks preparation. A 3-1 victory over Australia signalled their potential, but it was the semi-final against South Korea that was pivotal. After winning the penalty shoot-out, news filtered through to the team that a suicide bomber had blown himself up near a group of cheering fans in Baghdad.

One choice
The death toll that night, which also included fans killed accidentally by celebratory gunfire, hit 50 and the team discussed quitting. But after watching a news report where a bereaved woman, hysterical after her son’s death, begged the team to continue in his memory, there was only one choice and fate would produce the just result.
In a country so devoid of good news and inclusive institutions to be proud of, the Lions of Mesopotamia reminded a nation on the brink of imploding the importance of unity.
What is for sure, though, is that as a modicum of stability has returned, Iraqi football has endured a fall from grace. Vieira quit in the afterglow of victory, saying he would “go crazy” if he stayed. A string of coaches came and went, sacked in increasingly bizarre ways, with ex-Norway coach Egil Olsen being unceremoniously dumped for not travelling to Iraq.

A returning Vieira was fired earlier this year after a disastrous Gulf Cup campaign. Political intrigue and claims of sectarianism stung the FA, too, which was disbanded by the Ministry of Youth and Sport. While the FA, led by all-time record goalscorer Hussein Saeed, was seen as a largely Sunni organisation linked closely with Saddam, the Ministry was in the hands of Shia politicians. The Ministry soon backed down when FIFA threatened to throw Iraq out of World Cup qualifying. It might have been a more graceful exit than the one they had to endure: eliminated because they failed to get their paperwork in on time which, rightly, pointed out Qatar had fielded an ineligible player against them.

The Confederations Cup may seem like an irrelevance but don’t tell the Iraqis. This is their one chance to remind the world that this generation of talented players was no flash in the pan, a quaint sporting aberration dreamed up in a Hollywood script. They’ve faced much tougher roads to victory. Discount them at your peril. l