On June 4, Iraq take on Oman in Muscat in the first of three World Cup qualifiers that will decide whether or not, the war-torn nation will be represented amongst the best footballing nations around the world in Brazil next year.
In 2007, the Iraqi team, Asood Al-Rafidain, linked in torment and tragedy, took on the best the continent of Asia had to offer and against all odds went on to lift the Asian Cup in Jakarta. That same backbone of goalkeeper Nour Sabri, defender Ali Rahema, midfielder Nashat Akram and captain and star forward Younis Mahmoud, is intact and united in their aim, to make one last push to reach the World Cup in Brazil.
Death was a reoccurring subject, five years ago, as it followed the team from its base in Amman, where it had been forced to train, due to the relentless suicide and car bombings in the concrete-slabs of a labyrinth in the Iraqi capital and the rest of the country.
The team’s physio was killed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad, a day before he was set to travel to Jordan; Nour Sabri’s brother in-law faced to the same fate on the eve of the Asian Cup, while in the midst of jubilant scenes after the semi-final, celebrating Iraqi fans were caught up in two bombings in districts in the capital, specifically targeting them.
The Iraqi players, in mourning, pulled together told themselves that they would win the cup for its people, and those that had been killed in the bombings. The rest is history.
There are many parallels drawn between the situation the Iraqi team and the nation faced then and what it faces today.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in violence across Iraq this past month, according to the United Nations, the highest monthly death toll in years. There is political stagnation in the country, with no-faction willing to bring upon any progress, much like in 2006 and 2007.
For Al-Asood (The Lions), the 2014 World Cup represents one final chance for the players of the post-2003 generation, the group that revived the nation’s football after years of tyranny, wars and UN sanctions, to play on the world stage.
The three matches, that could best to be classed as three cup finals, are matches, in which Iraq need at least two victories against Oman, Australia and Japan to reach the finals.
Their task, however is made all the more difficult when you consider that the Iraqi team of 2007, won the Asian Cup at the time when they were considered one of Asia’s best, however the current side, is nowhere near the shape as it once was. It is an ageing team, with key individuals, captain Younis, and returning midfield maestro Nashat, nearing their mid-thirties.
The victory in Jakarta united a nation at its lowest ebb and there is hope that the same spine of the team could do the same and qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
In Irak, we believe.