In early 2007, Iraq were on the verge of reaching the semi-finals of the 18th Gulf Cup, needing only a point to qualify from their group, but the Iraqi team and its football loving public were knocked out by a goal and a revelation that has never really truly been investigated or remedied.
It came before the jubilant scenes of the Iraqi team’s Asian Cup triumph in Jakarta. The country was in the midst of a fractious and rapidly overflowing civil war, with its daily stretch of violence, suicide bombings and kidnappings, not to mention the frequent power cuts the Iraqi population suffered, and still continue to suffer.
Iraqis believed they would be able to catch a breather from their own troubles for just ninety minutes to watch their national team at one of the most prestigious championships in the Gulf region, the 18th edition held in Abu Dhabi.
But the manner of their team’s exit managed to shock the people of a nation that had seen it all over the previous years.
It was a dramatic last minute winner from Bahrain that had directly knocked out Iraq, however other darker forces had compounded the Iraqi players to a defeat. The Iraqi team, despite the troubles back home, had been labelled as one of the favourites for the cup, after their convincing 1-0 win over Qatar in their opening game, while a 1-1 draw with Bahrain in their second match meant a point against Saudi Arabia would put both teams through to the semi-finals.
With seconds left on the clock of the final group game, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were through, even with Iraq losing 1-0 but then came the heartbreaking moment when a last minute goal from Bahrain’s Alaa Hubail put his side in the semis at the expense of Iraq. Some players wept while others stood stunned not believing that they had been knocked out.
Though, the defeat was made harder to swallow for the loyal and devote Iraqi jamhour that had made their way to Abu Dhabi from all corners of the globe to support their team, when rumours circulated around the stadium, that there had been a secret agreement between the Saudi Arabia and Iraq, reminiscent of the ‘arrangement’ made between Austria and West Germany deal that sent a talented Algerian team at the World Cup in Spain on a plane home to Algiers in 1982.
However the strange thing, was that only one team was told about it, Iraq. The captain of the Iraqi team Ahmed Kadhim confirmed the speculations on the Iraqi satellite channel Al-Baghdadiya. The revelations shocked viewers tuning in. Ahmed Kadhim, then playing as a professional in Iran told stunned presenter Muwafaq Abdul-Wahib that five hours before the game, the coach Akram Ahmed Salman had given his team talk, and told the players that the game would be ‘organised’ to end in a draw, and instructed his players not to attack, but to defend.
He noted that the players on yellow cards would be replaced in the second half, to prevent them from getting a caution and miss the semi-final though suspension (which one player, star striker Younis Mahmoud, the top scorer in the Qatari ‘Petrodollars’ league had done to miss the encounter with the Saudis).
Iraq’s key midfielder Nashat Akram, had received the news a day earlier, just before the team’s light training session. The player had been injured in the previous game with Bahrain, and was asked if he would be fit to play in the Saudi game. He replied that his leg still hurt, but the coaching staff were not worried and told him that it was ok, because they had agreed with the Saudis that the game would not end in a win for any team, but in a draw.
News reached the team, that the game would end in a draw, but they had no idea about how to prepare for the game. When the players made their way down to the pitch, midfielder Haitham Kadhim asked “What do I do? attack or defend.” Iraq’s lone forward Emad Mohammed asked the same.
As the captain walked onto the pitch, he recalled his coach’s words “Do not provoke the Saudi team, I agreed on a draw”.
But from the opening minutes it was clear, the Saudis were not playing for a draw, as they scored a penalty after a dubious decision from Emirate referee Ali Hamad after only ten minutes, it then went from bad to worse, when Iraq went down to ten men, after defender Haidar Aboudi was shown a red card.
The Iraqis with a couple of reserves named in the starting line-up, desperately pushed forward, and missed a hatful of chances in the second half.
Needing a goal, an eager Nashat Akram, sitting on the bench, had to persuade his coach to put him on, in a last ditch attempt to salvage a point for them, but in the end it was not enough.
One of the most puzzling substitutions made by the coach during the game, was replacing one of Iraq’s best performers Emad Mohammed for Ahmed Salah – a player that managed to miss a golden opportunity to equalise, only for him to tamely shoot at the Saudi keeper (which at best would be described as a back pass).
Hours after the match, Emad Mohammed was interviewed by Al-Dawri wa Al-Kass TV, and was asked about the game.
As players we must play for a victory, but this was asked of us, do not play for a win, do not play for a win. The game will end in a draw we were told. That was asked of us, to play for a draw. That was the preparations made by the coach.
When asked, who should be blamed for the team’s exit, he sharply replied “The coach, the coach is responsible for the defeat, even if there was an agreement, you do not tell the players to play for a draw. You let the players play for a win.
The Saudi players, however, were surprised by the claims of the Iraqi players, and insisted that no information had been transferred to them, that the game would end in a draw.
At the final whistle, the Iraqi captain Ahmed Kadhim asked the assistant coach Rahim Hamed what had happened, and was told that there had been an agreement between Hussein Saeed, Akram Salman and the head of the Saudi delegation Prince Sultan bin Fahd, that the game would end in a draw, and that they, the Saudis, gave the Iraqi team chances to score in the second half but they did not take them.
Saudi strikers Malik Maadh, and Yassir Al-Qahtani were asked by the Iraqi captain, however they categorically affirmed that they had not heard of such a deal.
Stories of match-fixing or secret arrangements have been common in football in the Middle East, as many Iraqi fans know, though nothing at this scale. For decades fans have heard stories of Iraqi players being proposition by rich sheikhs to take it easy on their players in matches at the Gulf Cup, those were the days of Iraqi teams trashing ‘minnows’ such as Oman, Bahrain 5-0 or 6-0. In 1976, Iraq coached by Scotsman Danny McLennan even managed a 7-1 victory over Saudi Arabia coached by non-other than the late Hungary and Real Madrid forward Ferenc Puskás.
But the arrangement made by Hussein Saeed, Akram Salman Ahmed and their Saudi counterparts rocked Iraqi football, and should have seen the sacking of both men.
Hussein Saeed, the Teflon prince, was the only man in the Iraq FA that FIFA president Sepp Blatter would deal with after the War in 2003; however his close links with the old regime, working for many years as the Iraqi FA president Uday Saddam’s right hand man.
He had been a successful player for Iraq, and his only club, Al-Talaba, in a playing career that had spanned 15 years, and saw him notch more than 200 goals, however despite being a top figure in the local game, many people speculated that the 1986 World Cup member would not be the right man for the job.
After months in his job as president, it seemed as if nothing had changed, the corruption, misuse of funds and the overall lack of progress made by the Iraq FA to improve the game were some of the allegations thrown at Hussein Saeed by the doubters, however his seat was safe with his old guard supporters on the board of the Iraq FA backing up their president.
One outspoken critic was squad member Razzaq Farhan, who had declared before the tournament that he would retire from international football.
In an interview with Al-Iraqiya Al-Riyadhi satellite channel, he said “This is the first time in my career as a national player that I have come across this kind of thing, that the coach asked his players not to play football. The players didn’t know what to do in the game, whether to attack or defend. The Saudis played a good game, and they did not look like they were playing for a draw,” he added by saying that Hussein Saeed, and the coach had ‘sold Iraq’, and called for their heads.
25 million Iraqis were calling for the same.