By David Onjili
We all love the underdog’s story; we root for them and want to see them cause upsets during the game. And they often do. For example, Leicester City won the Premier League in 2014, against all odds, in a one of the biggest upsets in the game, and, in 2018, Iceland qualified for the FIFA World Cup. Yet, nothing comes close to the Iraqi national team triumph of 2007 at the Asian Cup hosted in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. There is a story of exiled players, civil war, death threats, and one talismanic striker.
A FOX 2 commentator described the ensuing celebration as “a rare luxury, after a winning header at the 70th minute from a corner kick by Iraqi captain Mohamed Younus against Saudi Arabia. This victory was a culmination of a trying journey for a team and nation in tatters – a story of triumph against insurmountable odds and proof of how well football can unite a fractured nation.
Iraq football cannot be mentioned without remembering slain president Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday Hussein. In the 1980s and 1990s, Uday was a sadistic and bloodthirsty tyrant, who was also president of both the Iraqi National Olympic Committee and the Football Association. He once made the national football team train with a concrete ball for failing to qualify for the 1994 soccer World Cup. He supervised the torture of many sportsmen before he was killed in a shootout during the second Gulf War.
Despite civil unrest, football in Iraq remained a loved sport. Yet, even with both Saddam and his son dead, sectarian violence has never really ceased, and the nation has never known peace. But it has also never stopped Iraqis love for football; the nation even qualified for the Olympics in Greece in 2004.
At the Olympics, a group of talented players that included Hawar Mulla Mohamed, Nashat Akram, and Younus Mohamed would emerge. They also beat Portugal four goals to two in a team that had Cristiano Ronaldo in their side before reaching the semi-finals where they conceded. This would lay down foundations for better performance, and the 2007 Asian Games would prove to be unifying tournament for a war-ravaged nation.
With violence at home, the Iraqi soccer team held its training camp in the United Arab Emirates, as Baghdad was too violent to host them. The final team comprised of Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims them, which made them targets for execution. Criminal gangs tried to divide them with death threats directed at players and many were forced to flee into exile. Hawar Mulla admitted to attending training sessions with a machine gun for safety. They later flew to Amman in Jordan for the final preparations where they were joined at the last minute by newly converted Muslim and coach Jorvar Vieira.
In their first game during the Asian Cup, they drew against Thailand before register a shock win against Australia. They eliminated Vietnam in the quarterfinals before winning on penalties against South Korea in the semi-finals after a barren draw in regular time.
This victory sparked nationwide joy and celebrations in Iraq, something that sadly led to the loss of many lives, when a suicide bomber killed 30 football fans in an ice cream parlor.
The players later admitted that they sat in despair in the dressing room contemplating not playing in the finals. How could victory claim many innocent lives like this, the pondered. But a woman whose son, Haider, was one of the victims of the bomber, appeared on national television and urged the players to honor the final and even promised that in honor of her soccer-loving late son, she would postpone his burial until they won the final. This was a turning point. The team resolved to honor not just the wishes of Haider’s mum but also those of a waiting, mourning nation.
In the final, from a corner kick, Younus headed in the winner against Saudi Arabia to write his name in football folklore. This triumph brought unquantifiable joy and unity to Iraq; for a moment, a war-torn nation forgot her differences and united to cheer their winning team. To cap this victory, Younus was nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year.
Whereas there exist several underdog stories in football, few if not any come close to the events surrounding this triumph by the Iraqi soccer team, which reminded the country that they were greater than the sum of their differences.