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  • Writer's pictureKai Abbott

The Lions of Mesopotamia: Iraq's Odd Defying 2007 Asian Cup Triumph

Updated: Aug 4, 2022

Football has been no stranger to groundbreaking and odd-defying underdog stories. Triumphs such Greece’s Euro Championship 2004 win, Leicester City’s 5000-1 odds of winning the Premier League title, and Denmark’s unbelievable win of the 1992 Euros all come to mind, but rarely does Iraq's victory of the 2007 Asian Cup. This unsung and unheard story covers a team which experienced torture and horrors the likes of no other. Despite these damaging experiences and factors, this team and story embodies the persistence of hope and spirit in times of pure uncertainty and danger, thus creating the greatest underdog story of all time.

In order to fully understand the complexities of this miraculous story, one must know the historical context which ultimately stands as the backbone of it. During the 1980’s, Iraq was one of the Middle East’s biggest footballing powerhouses. It was at this time that the son of the infamous dictator of Iraq, Uday Hussein, controlled and governed the Iraqi Football Association. Using fear, threats, torture, and power to climb through the ranks of Iraq’s sporting associations, Uday built an empire for himself, controlling not only the football association but also the Olympic Committee. Being the absolutely ruthless and cruel tyrant he was, he caused many players harm and torture the likes of no other, as he constantly ridiculed and harassed those in Iraqi sport. His torturous reign included beatings and head shavings when games were lost, and even forcing the team to play with a concrete ball for hours after failing to qualify for 1994 World Cup. His menacing acts finally met a demise, after his assassination in 2003. Soon after his death, the US Military led a raid on the Iraqi Olympic headquarters, and underneath found a torture chamber with devices and contraptions only the most vile and deranged people could obtain. Even after Uday’s death, Iraq struggled to find normality within the sport, as the country still was enveloped by chaos and destruction from all over.

When the 2004 Greek Olympics rolled around, the Iraqi FA struggled to field a team, as many former and incoming players were frightened to join due to the long history of abusive and malicious treatment of the players. To make matters worse, just weeks before the tournament, head coach Bernde Stange resigned as on his way to a team training, his driver was shot just before his eyes. Furthermore, morale and confidence was extremely low with most of the team, as specific players such as starting goalkeeper Noor Sabri and Hawar Mulla Muhamed both had to cope with the losses of family members due to the war in Iraq just weeks before the qualifications. Even if all of the odds seemed to be up against the team, there were a few positives before the tournament. Players Hawar Muhamed, Younnis Mahmoud, and Nashat Akram were developing into integral players of the national team, who seemed to be the leaders which Iraq needed going into the Olympics. With few star players and an interim manager who lacked experience at the helm, Iraq ultimately did quite well for their level at the 2004 Olympics, placing 4th, and even beating a Portugal side which contained Cristiano Ronaldo 4-2 in the Group Stages.

After a 2 year absence of any tortuments or competitions, it came time for the 2007 Asia Cup qualifiers. Due to the ongoing violence in Iraq, the national team was forced to play in the U.A.E with no fans present at any qualifying game. Iraq went on to dominate the group, going invincible and winning all of their games. Even if it seemed that they were on top of the world after qualifying, this was only the beginning of the trials and tribulations of the Asia Cup which laid ahead of them.

Without a coach and a direct vision, former coach of the Moroccan National Team Jorvan Viera stepped in to restore the order and faith within the team weeks before the group stages. In his first press conference, Viera addressed the issues and demons which haunted his team, saying “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 their situation changes.” With sympathy for the players and their situations, and with finally a leader at the helm, Iraq seemed more stable than ever before the upcoming Asia Cup. As scheduled, the tournament was to be hosted in South East Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Flying economy, unlike their other Asian counterparts, to Malaysia for the group stages, Iraq faced a tough group, drawing Thailand, Oman, and Asian powerhouse Australia.

When the first game of the cup arrived, Iraqi fans were buzzing with excitement and passion within the stadiums. The first game of the group was somewhat of a boring affair, as Iraq drew 1-1 with Thailand with a goal by Younis Mahmoud in the last 20 minutes. Sitting 3rd in the group after the game, Iraq were expected to exit yet another Asian Cup, but then, one of the biggest shocks in Asian sport history was pulled off to secure their places in the knockouts. Iraq beat an Australian team with the likes of Aaron Mooy and Tim Cahill 3-1, with the help of a brilliantly executed brace by Younis Mahmoud, and a calm finish after some brilliant team play by Hawar Muhamed. This accomplishment was one of the most monumental moments in Iraq’s and even the Asian Cup’s history, as Australia were on a 17 match unbeaten run prior to that match.

After making it to the knockouts, Iraq were given somewhat of an easy draw, breezing past Vietnam in the quarter-finals with yet another Younis Mahmoud masterclass, producing 2 goals in that game. The team was full of confidence and felt they were unbeatable and so did the fans. Since Iraq had qualified, the supporters were celebrating and partying in the streets. Iraq’s glory had slowly been bringing light to the dark worlds which these people lived in, and helped them fight through the hardships they were forced to deal with.

Up came the semi-finals, with Iraq drawing South Korea. While the team was mostly unknown, South Korea did hold one of English football's finest midfielders; the speedy and technical Park Ji-Sung. Park played for Manchester United at the time, who had just came off the bat of a Champions League winning season, performing at the highest level of English football for over 3 years prior the tournament. Following the thrashings which Iraq had dealt to other teams in the tournament, this game was quite different.

After 90 minutes of complete nail biting and tension filled football, the two teams went into extra-time sitting at 0-0. In the 104 minute of extra time, Iraq fans were on the edge of their seats when Hawar Muhamed dribbled past goalkeeper Lee Won-Jae, appearing to finally be the end of this long, tiring, game. While all fans expected him to score, Muhamed fired his shot right into the right hand post, but instead of rolling in off the inside of it, defenders cleared the ball just before it crossed the line. This turning point in the match led Iraq to have another golden opportunity in the last minute of play, as Muhamed whipped a beautiful cross into the box just over Lee Won-Jae’s head, yet no player was able to get a head or foot onto the ball. After the 120 scoreless minutes of open play, the game led to penalty shootouts. After multiple rounds of saves, tears, and goals, the shootout finally stood at 4-3. This exhilarating, yet somehow scoreless game came down to one penalty kick from South Korea’s Yeom Ki-Hun, which could make or break Iraq’s Asian Cup dreams. Yeom striked the ball to keeper Noor Sabri’s left, and with an incredible diving save Sabri had won the game for Iraq. All of sudden, the team, and the entire country of Iraq celebrated and burst with emotion, joy, and exhilaration. Though this joy lasted only for a short amount of time, as devastation soon would plague that night.

Two decimating suicide bombings rocked the country, killing over 50 people and leaving hundreds injured and mortally wounded. The team’s happiness soon turned to grief and despair, as they were emotionally and physically shattered with guilt, as they believed that they had indirectly led dozens and dozens of people to be brutally murdered that night. After the game, the team sat alone in silence and shock, watching a small tv cover the catastrophic events. Soon after the bombings, the team held an emergency meeting whether they should pull out of the tournament or not, as anguish had overcome the staff and players. Ultimately, the team decided that they were not ready to make such a difficult and challenging decision. The same night of the meeting, the team watched the television yet again, this time seeing an interview with a mother who’s son had been killed in the bombings. Umma Haider, the mother of the boy, had begged the team not to pull out of the tournament in memoriam of her son, and even vowed not to bury her son until the team had won. The pressure and hopes of hundreds of thousands of heartbroken fans laid on the team's back as they approached the final. Filled with determination and fighting spirit, the team ultimately won the final, with a heroic goal by Youniss Mahmoud in the last 20 minutes. The team celebrated their historic and odd defying win, but did not forget the dozens of lives which had been lost just nights before.

After the teams historic win, they arrived back in Baghdad to be met and congratulated by hundreds of thousands of fans, the Prime Minister of Iraq, and Umma Haider. While the team celebrated and gave their own respective speeches on the incredible achievement which they had made, captain and hero Youniss Mahmoud used his platform to address the issues which had enveloped Iraq for so many years. In this speech, Mahmoud talked about the U.S’s invasion of Iraq, and how he felt on the matter. He said, “I want America to go out, today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out, I wish they never invaded Iraq, and I hope it will all be over soon.” Youniss Mahmoud would soon be nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year and fair play award. He also would come 29th in the highly coveted 2007 Balon d’Or award, beating the likes of Robin Van Persie, Raul, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, and Samuel Eto'o. Mahmoud then moved to Qatar, after being denied a work visa in the U.K. due to Iraqi travel restrictions, and the fact that he would be unable to bring his family. He shared his opinion on the matter, saying “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.”

Star midfielder Nashat Akram would also request a move to Europe, and was almost signed by Sven Gordan-Erisksen’s Manchester City side, but would too be denied a work visa. He instead moved to the Netherlands, and spent the rest of his footballing career there. Hawar Mulla Muhamed also would continue his career in Europe, to play for Anorthosis Famagusta in Turkey. In 2008, he would become the first Iraqi player to score in Champions League history, certifying his place in even more record books. But the strangest of these stories is coach Jorvan Viera, who would go on to quit football, after saying “The job was impossible, and was making him crazy.”

Iraq's harrowing though eventually victorious journey in the 2007 Asia Cup, is the perfect example of how politics, and football, often go hand in hand. Despite the uncertain and dangerous times which this team was forced to live in, they were still able to prevail and come together as one to succeed. Even for a brief amount of time, the Lions of Mesopotamia reminded a broken and fractured nation, how to come together, and unite as one.

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