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Football’s Greatest Ever Underdog Story

September 11, 2019


Here’s a question for you: What is the greatest
ever underdog achievement in the history of football? There are a few contenders. West
Germany winning the 1954 World Cup, despite having an amateur league and just nine years
after the destruction of World War 2? How about Iceland, with a population the size
of Coventry, beating England to reach the quarter finals of the 2016 European Championship,
and later becoming the smallest nation to ever reach a World Cup finals? Or perhaps you have a soft spot for Leicester
City becoming Premier League champions, something that has become all the more poignant since
the death last year of the club’s Thai owner in a helicopter crash outside the ground. These all have their merits, but there is
one achievement that stands above all of them. The Iraq national team winning the 2007 Asian
Cup. Their story had everything. Players in exile. A country destroyed by war, death threats,
an enigmatic coach drafted in at the last minute and a talismanic striker whose goal
brought a fractured nation briefly back to together. Iraq’s triumph at the Asian Cup in 2007 didn’t
come out of nowhere. During the mid 1980s Iraq had arguably been the Middle East’s best
team. They qualified for the World Cup in 1986. But football in the 1980s and 1990s
in Iraq were controlled by one man: Uday, the bloodthirsty sadistic son of the country’s
dictator Saddam Hussein. Uday had a violent reputation that was cemented in 1988 when
he drunkenly murdered Saddam’s personal valet at a party held in honour of the wife of former
Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. After a brief period of punishment, it was clear that, even
as his eldest son, Uday would never be allowed to rule Iraq. Instead Uday built a fiefdom
in Iraqi sport, as the president of both the Iraqi national olympic committee and the country’s
football association. He had already grown a taste for football after starting a new
club called Al Rasheed and using every lever at his disposal to make sure it dominated
the Iraqi league by forcing teams to hand over their best players under threat of imprisonment
or worst. It was here that he began to torture players,
ordering beatings and head shavings if a player didn’t perform well, which became increasingly
hard to do given that effects of the Iran-Iraq war, a brutal conflict that would take a million
lives, and later the first Gulf War in 1990 and the international sanctions and isolation
that followed. Uday’s answer was to use a more aggressive form of motivation, Over the
years several players have defected to tell the story of how Iraq’s national team players
were tortured. There was the famous example of the time he made the entire squad play
football with a concrete ball as punishment for not qualifying for the 1994 World Cup
finals. Or the time when, after going out in the group stage at the 2000 Asian Cup,
three players Uday blamed for the embarrassment were beaten in a torture chamber located underneath
the Iraqi Olympic HQ. Prison, beatings, being dumped in tanks of raw sewage: being a footballer
in Iraq was a dangerous business. The second Gulf War eventually brought about
Uday’s demise when he was killed in a shoot out with US forces. Coalition forces eventually
found Uday’s torture chamber underneath Iraq’s Olympic HQ, which included a bed frame connected
to the main electric power supply, a sarcophagus with long nails on the inside, and a medieval
device used to rip open a person’s anus. But Iraq had a new problem. The hated Saddam and
his sons were gone but chaos was left in its wake and a vicious sectarian civil war broke
out. Iraq managed to send a team to the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, even though German
journeyman coach Bernd Stange quite before the tournament. Stange would explain that
his driver was executed in the run up to the tournament and he feared for his life. But
at the tournament a new generation of players he had blooded in qualification excelled.
Including Hawar Mullah Mohamed, a Kurdish attacking midfielder and Nashat Akram, the
midfield engine of the team. A young striker called Younis Mahmoud emerged, who scored
in a 4-2 victory over a Portugal side that included Cristiano Ronaldo. Iraq made the
semi finals, losing to Paraguay and finishing fourth. But the Olympic experience set the
scene for perhaps Iraq’s greatest triumph. By 2007 as many as 100 people were being killed
everyday in Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, no home international matches could take place in
Baghdad so Iraq’s home games were played in the UAE. Despite losing their opening game
2-0 to Singapore, Iraq roared back to win their group and qualify for the Asian Cup.
But their preparations were in disarray. Aside from the threats from various sectarian militia
groups who despised the fact that the Iraqi national team contained Shia, Sunni and Kurd
working together, criminal gangs were trying to extort the players by threatening them
and their families. Every player had to leave the country, with each having a story about
the moment they decided they had to leave. Hawar Mullah Mohamed told a story of how he
would have to turn up to training with a machine gun. Noor Sabri, the goalkeeper, heard that
his brother in law had been killed shortly before the tournament. Haitham Kadhim saw
a teammate killed during a match. So, as the team gathered in Amman, the capital
of Jordan, and now home to a million Iraqi refugees, little was expected of them. They
were coach-less and traumatised. Enter Jorvan Vieira, a Brazilian coach who had converted
to Islam and had enjoyed some success coaching in North Africa. “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,” he said. Vieira had certainly walked into the lions
den. In the run up to the tournament he had lost a physio who had been killed in a suicide
bombing. News had also filtered through that another national team, the Iraqi youth taekwondo
team, hadn’t made it to Amman. They had all been executed and buried in shallow graves
near to the Jordanian border. But in a short period of time Vieira managed to bring some
calm and unity to the dressing room before leaving for the tournament being hosted in
Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Iraq, of course, flew economy class. Iraq’s tournament began slowly with Younis
Mahmoud, now the undisputed figurehead upfront, salvaging a 1-1 draw against Thailand. But
next, Iraq pulled off the shock of the tournament, a 3-1 victory against Australia. In the quarter
finals Younis Mahmoud scored twice as they beat Vietnam setting up a quarter final against
South Korea. As the team progressed, thousands upon thousands of Iraqis would take to the
streets to celebrate, in increasing numbers, flying the Iraqi flag openly on the streets
for the first time in years. The semi final was no different. The game finished 0–0
and went to penalties, with Noor Sabri saving the final kick. But, as the team celebrated,
and Baghdad celebrated too, a suicide bomber quietly approached an ice cream parlour full
of celebrating fans in the capital, destroying himself and 30 football fans with him. That
night twenty more fans were killed across the city in suicide attacks, as were five
more, accidentally, due to people firing their guns victoriously in the air, and the bullets
falling back to earth. The Iraqi team, ecstatic in the aftermath of triumph, were shattered
by the news that their victory had indirectly led to the deaths of dozens of their compatriots.
Nashat Akram, Younis Mahmoud and Jorvan Vieira would later explain how the team sat in silence
in the dressing room watching the carnage on TV. The team held a meeting to discuss
pulling out of the tournament. But, on TV, they watched as a bereaved mother was interviewed.
Her young son, Haider, had been murdered in the attack. Umm Haider, mother of Haider,
as she would become known, begged the team to continue in memory of him vowing not to
bury him until they won the title. And they did. In an emotional final Iraq took on regional
powerhouse Saudi Arabia. And it was, of course, Younis Mahmoud that scored the winning goal
in a tight 1-0 victory, clinching Iraq their first and only Asian Cup title. Despite the
risk and the bloodshed of the previous weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were back
on the streets to celebrate. The team would return to Baghdad, to be met
up the prime minister and Umm Haider. Younis Mahmoud used the platform to criticise the
US occupation. “I want America to go out. Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow,
but out. I wish the American people didn’t invade Iraq and, hopefully, it will be over
soon.” Mahmoud would be nominated for FIFA’s World Player of the Year award and move to
Qatar after being denied a dream move to Europe due to visa restrictions on his family. “Of
course, I want to play in England. But my family is my priority and if I sign for a
club in Europe, I can’t take my family. In Qatar, it’s no problem. They say, ‘bring everyone!’”
he said. Midfielder Nashat Akram went a step further
when he was actually signed by Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Manchester City side. But the British
government refused to issue a work permit. Despite winning the Asian Cup, and despite
Britain’s culpability in Iraq’s destruction, the British government decided that Iraq wasn’t
ranked high enough by FIFA to warrant a work permit. He would later move to the Netherlands.
Hawar Mullah Mohammed also made it to Europe, signing for Anorthosis Famagusta. In 2008
he became the first Iraqi to score in the Champions League when Anorthosis Famagusta
beat Panathinaikos 3-1. And Jorvan Vieira? He would quit shortly after the tournament,
saying that the job was impossible and was making him crazy. After July 2007, US military statistics revealed
that the number of civilian deaths dramatically decreased, from 26,000 to just over 10,000
in 2008. The US military surge was partially responsible. But there was also no doubt that
the Lions of Mesopotamia – even if it was only briefly – reminded a fractured country
that they were greater than the sum of their parts.

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