The brilliant publication: The Blizzard, The Football Quarterly, is celebrating the release of it's fiftieth issue. As such, we're delighted to host the below article which features in this landmark issue by James Montague. Here, James recounts the tale of Iraq's remarkable run to win the 2007 Asian Cup against the backdrop of a dreadfully bloody conflict.
To find out more about the Blizzard, and their fiftieth issue, head to their website: https://theblizzard.co.uk/
By James Montague
On 29 July 2007, at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia, the captain of Iraq’s national team scored the goal that created the greatest moment, and the greatest triumph, in the history of football. I know this is a bold claim, and one which could invite ridicule, but what actually constitutes
the greatest moment in football is a slippery concept to grasp. Is it the greatest single moment of skill, like
the Cruyff turn? The greatest goal, perhaps Maradona at Mexico 86? (No, not that one). The greatest match between two of the best teams in the world at the time? Perhaps it is an iconic moment that has never been forgotten or a moment that changed the game forever.. The final of the Asian Cup probably doesn’t count on any of those fronts. Because it was more important than that.
Iraq were playing in their first ever final against the three-times winners Saudi Arabia but their presence was itself a miracle. The country was at war with itself after a US coalition smashed into the country looking for non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, toppling Saddam Hussein and leaving behind an
anarchy whose consequences we still feel today. At the start of that hot 2007 summer 200 Iraqis were being murdered every day by Sunni and Shia militias.
Iraq seemed to be falling apart along sectarian lines. And yet, at the precise time the country was at its weakest and least united, a football team of Shia, Sunni, Turkmen and Kurds projected a di!erent future. In the 73rd minute a Kurdish player, Hawar Mulla Mohammed, bent a corner into the penalty box over
the head of the Saudi keeper Yasser al Mosailem, where a Sunni Turkmen striker from Kirkuk, the captain Younis Mahmoud, was waiting to nod the ball into the net. The match finished 1-0 and the cathartic, emotional outpouring was unlike anything I’d seen before in football. Not just on the pitch either. Tens of thousands had taken to the streets of Baghdad to celebrate even though football fans had been targeted by suicide bombers throughout the tournament. Iraq were champions, and that was extraordinary enough. But it was the story of how they even got to the tournament in the first place that
elevated their achievements above anyone else.
Six weeks earlier I had met the Iraq team as they prepared for the finals at a warmup tournament in Jordan. The Amman International Stadium was blisteringly hot and Jorvan Vieira was seeing his new team train. The Brazilian coach had only just been hired. No one wanted to take the job. “This is the hardest job in the world, definitely,” Jorvan agreed, when we spoke pitchside. “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.”
The situation was fluid and heartbreaking. There was no league football so each player was an exile, living abroad. Every player had been touched by murder and was under threat not just from competing
insurgent groups who detested the sectarian unity that the national team represented, but also from criminal elements who threatened to kidnap family members in exchange for a ransom. Every player I spoke to had an awful story to tell. The chaos had somehow been normalised. And at the centre of it all was Vieira, a very late hire who, if the rumours were to be believed, was viewed with some suspicion by the senior players.
There were some signs that not all was well. An argument over who should be captain, for example. But also moments of joy; the players dancing together to Arabic pop music on the team bus after training. Players huddled in groups gleefully gossiping about agents and who would be signing for a big club in
Europe. Any squabbling was quickly put into context with any news from home. “Did you hear about the boys from taekwondo? It could happen with any player here.” Vieira had asked me.
I hadn’t but I soon did. Hours before Iraq kicked o! the tournament in Amman, against Iran, news reached the squad of their fate. In 2006, 15 athletes aged between 18 and 26 were kidnapped in western Iraq on their way to a training camp in Jordan. A year later, their remains were found in a ditch near Ramadi. All had been shot in the head.
Iraq lost the West Asian Championship final to Iran. The stadium was full with Iraqis waving flags. There was a desperation in the crowd to hold on to something, anything, that was still recognisably Iraqi. Even then, before they headed off to Thailand and Indonesia, flying economy of course, it was clear that the players and the team had become something symbolic and important. Perhaps even the last fragment of their country that had not yet been divided. They also had an excellent team. Captain Younis Mahmoud was a rampaging centre-forward who reminded me a little of Hakan Sükür. Nashat Akram was the technician in the centre of the park. But my favourite was Hawar Mulla Mohammed, their temperamental Kurdish winger (it was he who got most upset he wasn’t made captain).
Iraq’s 1–1 draw with Thailand in Bangkok on July 7 in the opening game of the Asian Cup didn’t give a hint of the glory and the tragedy that would follow. But Iraq pulled off the shock of the tournament, beating the favourites Australia 3–1 in the following game. Vietnam fell in the quarters. They were to meet South Korea in the semi-finals. The game finished 0–0 and went to penalties. No sooner had keeper Noor Sabri saved the deciding penalty than, back home, tens of thousands of fans poured out into the stifling Iraqi summer to dance and sing. For a brief, all too fleeting moment, Iraq was united.
As the revellers rejoiced, a suicide bomber quietly approached an ice cream stand in the well-heeled Mansour district of Baghdad, destroying himself and 30 football fans with him. That night 20 more fans were killed across town in suicide attacks. The Iraq 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. The team held a meeting to discuss pulling out of the tournament, but the players, spurred on by a bereaved mother who had begged the team to continue in memory of her murdered son, chose to play on. Which they did, winning the tournament anddedicating it to Umm Haider, the mother of Haider, the young boy murdered for supporting his national team.
Suddenly the intractable di!erences that had blighted Iraq didn’t seem that intractable any more. Back home, the fear of attack wasn’t enough to dampen the mood. The team and their remarkable achievement were suddenly the biggest story in the world. JorvanVieira quit after the match as he had
promised, despite pleas from fans, players and even the prime minister. “If my contract was for six months and not for two, they would have had to take me to the hospital for crazy people,” he explained. For some of the players it would be the making of them. Some were signed to regional teams in the Gulf
on lucrative contracts. European teams courted others, like Younis, after he had been nominated for FIFA’s prestigious World Player of the Year award. One player, Nashat Akram, almost went one step further. Sven-Göran Eriksson’s big-spending Manchester City side had offered him a lucrative contract
to become Iraq’s first English Premier League player. But the UK government refused his visa application. Hawar Mulla Mohammed would move to Cyprus and become the first Iraqi to score in the
But the real e!ect of Iraq’s magical cup run was something intangible yet essential. July 2007 was, according to US military figures, the bloodiest month of the war. And then the numbers started falling, and kept falling. Some pointed to the much-trumpeted US troop surge. But the players saw their victory in the Asian Cup final as their contribution to helping save their country. To them, they helped the country see that they were stronger together.
The greatest moment in football is so subjective as to be almost meaningless. But if you had to pick a moment, the moment that united a team, and a country, and maybe even diverted the course of history, is not a bad shout. The players and the coach certainly believed it. I would bump into them occasionally
– Vieira whilst watching Al Jazira play in an empty stadium in Abu Dhabi, Mahmoud on the set of a football talk show in Doha – and the conversation always came back to the summer of 2007. It had defined their lives and their futures. And perhaps their country’s direction of travel too.