In war-torn Iraq, success on the football pitch can unite a nation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am

Against a background of car bombings and kidnappings, mass murder and the depressing spectacle of an entire society on the verge of destroying itself, one of the finest sports stories of the past decade emerged in Jakarta in mid-2007.

While Iraq was in the violent grip of fear and sectarian warfare, and on the verge of meltdown, the nation's footballers were doing their part to restore harmony and unity in their increasingly divided land.

Younis Mahmoud's goal secured Iraq's first-ever Asian Cup title with victory over Saudi Arabia at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, sparking fireworks of a different kind to what had previously been seen in war-torn Baghdad.

Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were all brought together in the spirit of celebration. National unity - even for a short period - had been achieved. What the politicians and religious and military leaders had failed to do, the likes of Mahmood, Nashat Akram and coach Jorvan Vieira achieved on a football pitch in a faraway land with their against-the-odds win.

Three-and-a-half years on from one of world sport's fairy tales, the daily violence has decreased and American and coalition troops have declared an end to military operations. Iraq no longer dominates news bulletins across the world, even though sectarian violence remains a part of everyday life.

The country's footballers, meanwhile, were humbled in their unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the World Cup, while the eastern half of the continent has stolen a march on those in the western side of Asia.

The chance to reverse that trend, though, will come in Qatar next month when the Iraqis seek to defend their continental title. And they will do so in circumstances that, while less demanding than in 2007, would still present a challenge to less hardened countries and individuals.

'When we watch television and there is a bomb, of course you are worried,' says Nashat, the team's midfield kingpin who has played professionally in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands since Iraq's Asian Cup win.

'I try to contact my family. I ask about my brother, my sister. I ask about my friends. But it's become normal. We've been dealing with it for seven years.'

Life in Iraq retains a perverse version of reality; the principal concerns of many players breathing the rarified air of Europe's top leagues centres on the colour of their new Porsche or Bentley.

Those involved in the game in Iraq, however, have learned to live with a very different backdrop to their on-field lives. In 2007, that adversity was what spurred the team to victory; today, it has become just another fact of life.

'At the beginning it was difficult but now it's okay,' says Nashat. 'During my first year of playing overseas, I had to focus on my job and on playing.

'My family was with me when I played in Saudi, in Qatar and in the Emirates. When I was in Holland I was alone because they decided to stay between Iraq and Amman, because I have an apartment in Jordan.

'In 2007, it was very, very dangerous. At that tournament we had a great result and all of the people were very, very happy. They celebrated in the streets and at that moment all the problems were gone because they celebrated with the team.'

While the Asian Cup win healed a few wounds, the years since have been far from successful for Iraq's national team. Failure to progress to the final phase of Asia's qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Cup finals was a bitter blow and it followed hard on the heels of missing out on the Beijing Olympics.

Now, though, there is an opportunity for redemption. And while Iraq will not go into next month's tournament being underestimated in the way they were in 2007, neither will the nation be seen as one of the favourites.

Japan, South Korea, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran will all be expected to challenge for the title, leaving the Iraqis with what could be another run on the tournament's blindside.

That would be something that would give new national coach Wolfgang Sidka a great deal of satisfaction, but it would serve only as a stepping stone towards what he sees as the country's real target.

'There's a long road to go and we have to go step by step and work on the mental, the physical, the tactical; all the things that belong in football,' says the German, who took over in the summer.

'I'm not looking back, we're looking forward. Winning the Asian Cup is history. What happened then is history. We have to grow now, day by day, match by match and tournament by tournament. We have to improve everything.

'I have to try to convince them they should be aiming to play at the World Cup, because that's the biggest tournament and if you play at the World Cup then everybody knows you.

'It would be good for the pride of Iraq to play at the World Cup and it will make everyone happy. It's good for their confidence, football will give them pride. It's a long way to go. It was a big surprise they won the Asian Cup but you could see what was possible. Our world ranking [99] must be half of what it is now, that has to be the target.'

Before that can happen there need to be significant changes on the ground in Iraq. The sport needs to develop further and the infrastructure must improve, issues that can only be addressed in a broader, more stable environment.

That is an atmosphere that has not existed in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the country has only recently seen a level of political stability after months without a government running the nation on a day-to-day basis.

The Iraq Football Association has had its issues too; the federation has twice been banned by Fifa for governmental meddling in its affairs, further depriving the national team of opportunities to test themselves against more significant opposition.

'This has affected our football,' says federation president Hussain Saeed. 'Sometimes the ministry of youth interferes in the football association and sometimes we push the Olympic committee to interfere on our behalf on this.

'That's why Fifa suspended us twice and that has affected football in Iraq. We had no national team.

'In Iraq it is very difficult. The clubs don't have much money, there are no professional clubs and yet this has been a very good year for Iraq.

'We qualified for the U17 Asian Cup and our under-20s qualified for the U20 Asian Cup and our national team will play at the Asian Cup. So we have three teams doing well, as well as our futsal team. We are still developing our football.'

For all Saeed's attempts to talk up the fortunes of Iraqi football at various levels, the fact remains that a repeat of the 2007 heroics would be lightning striking twice.

That, though, does not mean the former national team striker - he captained the country during their only appearance at the World Cup, in Mexico in 1986 - cannot dream.

'We put a smile on the faces on all the people in Iraq,' says Saeed. 'Football gives everyone in Iraq hope. It is the school of life and it gives them hope. We hope that we can defend the title and we hope we can have a strong team in this tournament.'