Iraq was in the midst of an exhaustive, ravaging war in 2007. And that gloom wasn’t eased when its national football team lost 2-0 to minnows Singapore in their opening qualifier for that year’s AFC Asian Cup. Yet despite having to play their home games across the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates, the Iraqis managed to go unbeaten in their remaining five preliminaries and book a place at the continental finals.
Jorvan Vieira was, less than two months beforehand, appointed to oversee the Lions of Mesopotamia’s campaign, but the Brazilian swiftly discovered the magnitude of the task ahead. He recalled: “Several of the players had lost relatives in the war (midfielder Haitham Kadhim had seen gunmen storm onto the pitch during a club match and execute a team-mate). Only six players turned up to our first training session. When I finally got them together, there was big unrest between them due to political and social tension.”
Against all odds
Vieira, much to his credit, managed to create a unity within his squad, but that was far from the end of his troubles: “Our physio was killed by a bomb in Baghdad two days before we flew out to Bangkok – he was on his way to the travel agent to buy his ticket. Then, upon arrival, two of our players were detained for eight hours by immigration officials. I discovered we didn’t have equipment to train with or even kit. We had problems with the food, the hotel booking. It was a nightmare.”
That nightmare continued on the pitch – one left drenched by a tropical downpour prior to kick-off – when Iraq fell behind to co-hosts Thailand after just six minutes of their opening game. Despite having the crowd and the conditions against them, however, a header from captain Younis Mahmoud – who had recently lost a close relative in the war – rescued a point.
Next up were Australia, who were among the favourites for the trophy in their first-ever AFC Asian Cup appearance. Yet a team that had given eventual champions Italy a major scare in the Round of 16 at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, and boasted English Premier League stars Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, were stunned 3-1 by the west Asians.
A goalless draw with Oman then secured Iraq a ticket from Group A to the quarter-finals, where a Mahmoud double earned them a 2-0 win over Vietnam and set up a last-four date with Korea Republic, who were the only Asian team to have qualified for every FIFA World Cup since 1986. It was David against Goliath, but following a competitive 0-0 draw, a superb save from Noor Sabri helped the Iraqis win the shoot-out 4-3 and secure an Asian Cup final berth for the first time.
It was a fixture with which their opponents, by contrast, were very familiar – Saudi Arabia were, indeed, appearing in the Asian Cup decider for the sixth time in seven editions. And with Yasser Al-Qahtani in immaculate form, and having beaten joint-record three-time champions Japan 3-2 in the semis, The Green Falcons were the overwhelming favourites to lift the trophy.
Five years ago to this Sunday, in the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta, the one-sided match many expected was, actually, an even, entertaining end-to-end battle. Iraq goalkeeper Sabri made one breathtakingly acrobatic save from a Taiseer Al Jassam volley to maintain the deadlock, while defender Bassim Abbas did a great job on Al-Qahtani.
And despite a series of opportunities on both goals, the net rippled only once. It came in the 72nd minute, when Hawar Mohammed delivered a high, hanging corner to the back post. Saudi Arabia No1 Yasser Al-Mosailem appeared the obvious favourite to punch it clear, but Mahmoud leapt the highest and sent a thumping header past two defenders on the line and into the roof of the net.
“It was an unbelievable achievement given all we went through,” said Mahmoud, who finished as the tournament’s joint-leading marksman and Most Valuable Player. “Few expected us to get past the group stage, but we became Asian champions for the first time. What was even more pleasing to us, though, was that we put a smile on the faces of our people. The Iraqi people are very, very passionate about football, and words can’t describe how much they needed that moment of joy in what was a period of such devastation.”