On the evening of July 29, 2007, the whole Iraqi nation from the highest mountains of Zakho in the north to the deepest south of Safwan held their breath as they watched Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud rise up to head a ball sent from the heavens past the despairing Saudi keeper and score the winner.
Generators in Baghdad and other cities in the country worked overtime as people forgetting their daily problems for 90 minutes, screamed, cheered, waved flags and danced in front of their TV screens in celebration of their team’s achievement in becoming champions of Asia. Traditional celebratory gunfire echoed in the background as the euphoria of the historic victory filtered through to the people of the war-ravaged country, the celebrations reached as far as the streets of Michigan, London and Stockholm. When asked about his winning goal, Younis replied “I did not score the goal, it was scored by the entire people of Iraq” to emphasise the symbolism of unity between the people of Iraq, one goal, one people.
Asood Al-Rafidain or the Lions of Mesopotamia as the Iraqi fans calls its national team live, breath and play together as one family. Many of the players have known each other since their early teens, united in the highs and lows of life as an Iraqi footballer during long-haul flights in cramped economy class seats or standing waiting six or seven hours for a visa to enter a country just to play a game of football. The core of the team have been together since 2000 the year the Iraqi youth team won the Asian Youth Championship in Tehran, it was there that the likes of Nour Sabri, Basim Abbas and Nashat Akram first started to believe in their own abilities and gain the confidence in themselves that they could beat any team on the Asian continent. These players were the same generation that had been born during the Iraq-Iran war and lived through bombardments of the Gulf War and the crippling UN sanctions, not to mention the dictatorial Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and the sadistic exploits of his eldest son Uday, the former president of the Iraq Football Association.
As bombs fell on Baghdad in March 2003 which eventually brought the end of Saddam, the players were taking part in a training session at the Al-Shaab (People’s) National Stadium preparing for the qualifying rounds of the Olympic Games under coach Adnan Hamad, the man that had led the players to glory in Tehran three years earlier. In the second week of training, the coalition forces invaded Iraq from the Kuwaiti border in the south and bombarded the capital with laser-guided missiles and fighter planes. One of the bombs dropped near the stadium where the team was conducting a training session, several of the players dropped to the ground or took cover. The coach knew that the time for football was over and ordered them to go home and be with their families. It would be two months before the players would be reunited on a football pitch again. On May 12, 2003, with the country in chaos, the coach called up his players on the new Iraqi radio station Voice of New Iraq set-up by the Coalition forces. The coach asked his players to report for training at the Al-Karkh Stadium in Baghdad, instead of Iraq’s national stadium, which at the time was being used by the US forces as a car-park for their tanks and vehicles. Exactly a year to the day the coach had summoned his players on radio, the team created from the ashes of war beat Saudi Arabia to qualify for their fourth Olympics. The never say die attitude of the players gave them the confidence to do the impossible, as they managed a fourth place finish in Athens.
After an early exit the 17th Gulf Cup in 2004 the coach quit citing the security problems in Iraq, his announcement came on the day his home on the volatile Baghdad street of Haifa was destroyed. His successor Akram Salman who received several death threats during his time in charge and fled with his family to the relative safety of the Kurdish region in the north was ousted after the team failed to reach the knock out stages at the 18th Gulf Cup. Three players alleged the coach had agreed with their opponents Saudi Arabia to play for a draw so both teams would advance, telling his players not to attack. In the end an investigation into the match found that there had been ‘miscommunication’ between the coach and players, the coach was sacked while the players were suspended.
Jorvan Vieira had inherited a disjointed team still reeling from the way they had exited the Gulf Cup and despite looking at over forty players during a short three week training camp in Amman kept faith with the same group of players, selecting only five Olympic players and recalling Jassim Mohammed Ghulam after a six-year absence from the national team. Jassim had been part of the 2000 Asian Youth Championship team, and helped to shore up a shaky defence that went onto concede only two goals all the way to the final in Jakarta.
Al-Montakhab Al-Iraqi has always been united, the team in the past has included Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Turkmen, and Kurds playing alongside each other. Every Iraqi is proud to wear and fight for the jersey, like the players of the Seleção Brasileira and Italy’s Azzurri are proud to represent their country, whatever their background. Members of the team Younis, Hawar and Basim all from different sects even have identical maps of Iraq tattooed on theirs arms as a gesture of how much Iraq means to them. However in the turmoil in war-torn Iraq, the Asood Al-Rafidain has meant even more to its people, the one thing they could unite and celebrate and look for in hope in these hard and dark times of the daily terrorism, car bombings, kidnappings, sectarian violence and electricity blackouts.
As the popular Iraqi song ‘Iraq Joy’ with the chorus “Jeeb Al-Kass Jeeba” (Bring the Cup, Bring it) continuously played on Iraqi TV channels after the final victory went “Look at the player at the stadium, he plays with his hand over an injury. That’s our Iraqi player from tragedy he brings joy…The team you see before you, is one like our united people…We are Nour, Nashat, and Hawar, we are, Younis, Basim, Haidar, Haitham and Karrar, we are, Salih, Mahdi and Qusai, Ali Rahema, Jassim, we are. One family and team, and tomorrow they will light up our morning…. ” The words written by poet Karim Al-Iraqi speak for themselves.
Eleven footballers, just ordinary individuals had done what the whole Iraqi parliament could not do, unite a nation and bring smiles on people’s faces instead of tears and suffering. The Iraq national team has succeeded where politics has failed.