Monday, July 14, 2008

Against All Odds

As Iraq Captain Younis Mahmoud led his team out in Jakarta for the Asian Cup Final and their shock defeat of Saudi Arabia on July 29, 2007, the black armbands worn by him and his team-mates were a poignant reminder of the terrible violence and suffering in their homeland.
Four days earlier, more than 50 football fans had been killed in a double car bombing in the Baghdad suburb of Mansour as they celebrated Iraq’s semi-final victory against South Korea.
The shadow of violence hung over the Iraqis throughout the tournament. Team physiotherapist was the victim of a car bombing as he prepared to join the team at their training camp in Jordan in June; the brother-in-law of goalkeeper Noor Sabri was killed in the days leading up to the tournament; and the step-mother of midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed was killed just before Iraq’s quarter-final clash with Vietnam in Bangkok.

As the security situation has steadily worsened in Iraq, football- just as every other facet of life- has been seriously affected.

The nation endured more than a decade of United Nations sanctions following the first Gulf War and the sporting infrastructure was already beyond breaking point before the United States-led invasion of 2003. The subsequent insurgency forced the national team and club sides to play all their international matches overseas, in countries such as Qatar, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

Not surprisingly, that has had an adverse effect on the Iraqi players, who struggled to qualify for the Asian Cup, losing against Singapore, while the federation has had to bear the additional costs of the national team’s nomadic existence.

While the nation continues to disintegrate and heads towards a seemingly inevitable civil war, the national team have become a rare rallying point and a common cause for the whole country.
All enquiries about the team’s ethnic make-up were met with a straight bat by federation officials, who sought instead to focus attention on the lessons the team could teach the various factions at home.

Amid all the talk of war and politics, it would be easy to forget the blossoming generation of Iraqi players who have taken the national team to unprecedented heights in the regional game over the past decade.

In 2000, they won the Asian Youth Championship in Tehran, defeating Japan in the final, and many of that squad graduated to the Olympic team, who, four years later, reached the semi-finals in Athens after thumping the much fancied Portugal 4-2, which had the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bosingwa, Raul Meireles and Luis Boa Morte. However, they lost to Italy in the bronze-medal match. Iraq reached the Final of the 2006 Asian Games, but lost to hosts Qatar.

With 16 of the 23 man squad playing their club football outside Iraq, the team was always going to take time to gel, and things looked ominous when, with 6 minutes gone, the Thais took the lead from a penalty. However, the Iraqis rallied and the final score was 1-1.

A 3-1 victory over pre-tournament favourites Australia in the next game all but earned Iraq a spot in the quarter-finals and they sealed it with a 0-0 draw against Qatar. They went on to beat
Vietnam in the quarter-finals and South Korea in the semi-finals through a 4-3 win in the penalty-shootout after a 0-0 draw. It took the Iraqis into uncharted territory- the country’s first Asian Cup Final.
Saudi Arabia were seeking a record fourth continental title, and few pundits gave the Iraqis much hope against a side that had impressed in knocking out defending champions Japan in the semi finals. Iraq kept their opponents on the back foot and there was no sense of injustice when Younis, the captain of Iraq scored the winner.
But Younis’s attention was on delivering a victory that he hoped would go some way towards easing the suffering of the Iraqi people, and in particular the families of those who had died a few days earlier. After the game, he said: “A mother of one of those victims said she had not wept over her son’s dead body but had declared: ‘I present my son as a sacrifice to the Iraqi national team.’ So we had to win.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

LOL. I really enjoyed reading your blog title description.

But what this blog IS - is a venue for information and a cure for boredom.

eh? :) how about that?