Inside the Middle East

Ten years on: How Iraq’s soccer stars brought warring nation together

Iraq's captain Younis Mohmoud holds up the winning trophy as he along with teammates celebrate at the end of the final match of the Asian Football Cup 2007 at the Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta, 29 July 2007.
10 years on: Iraq's inspiring Asian Cup win
07:08 - Source: CNN

On the evening of July 29, 2007, the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, echoed to the sound of gunfire.

Far from an uncommon occurrence, the rattle of bullets usually signaled the latest manifestation of sectarian violence that had engulfed the country in the wake of the US and allied invasion of 2003.

Yet on this particular evening thousands filled the streets, dancing and waving flags as cars honked their horns in delight.

The gunfire, far from being malicious, was a sign of celebration as Iraqis fired their weapons into the air to salute an unlikely group of soccer heroes.

By defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the Asian Cup final in Jakarta, Indonesia, Iraq’s national team had confounded the odds and claimed the continent’s most prestigious competition for the first time.

They had also, however briefly, united a nation that was tearing itself apart.

Looking back at that period, Iraqi midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed who played in all six games of the 2007 tournament finds it hard to comprehend just how violent his country had become both during and after the invasion.

“The national security HQ was close to where I lived and when it got bombed the building would swing left and right,” Mohammed said. “It was indescribable, we used to practice while the airstrikes were going on.”

Mohammed said that between 50 and 60 people from his clan, including five of his cousins, died as a result of the Iraq conflict and its aftermath.

In 2007 alone, more than 26,000 civilians were killed according to figures from the Iraq Body Count monitoring group.

A history of violence

Yet violence was nothing new for the Iraqi national football team. They’d been ruled by fear from within their own locker-room for many years.

Uday Hussein, eldest son of Iraq’s late tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein, ensured that the consequences for failure on the field were brutal.

Tales of his cruelty were legion: beatings, torture, imprisonment. But by 2007, Uday was long gone – killed along with his brother Qusay in 2003.

Still, on the eve of the Asian Cup four years later, the Iraqi national team was in disarray. With just weeks to go until the start of the tournament, they didn’t even have a coach.

The Brazilian journeyman Jorvan Vieira was a last-minute call-up.

According to Salih Sadir, who played in the early rounds of the 2007 tournament and was an unused substitute in the final, such haphazard preparation ensured expectations remained low.

“We were expecting that it would be mere participation and then we’d leave the competition,” Sadir said casting his mind back.

An opening match draw against unfancied Thailand did little to alter that theory.

But in the second game against Australia everything changed. A 3-1 defeat of the pre-tournament favorite transformed the belief among the Iraqi players. More importantly, it made people back home take notice.

“Every time we won, we return(ed to the dressing room) to listen and watch the response, and reaction from our families,” Sadir said.

As the tournament progressed, that response became increasingly excited.

Unity and togetherness

In a country that was fracturing along religious and ethnic lines, its soccer stars had begun to offer an example of how Iraqis could work together.

A team of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds could easily have been divided, just like their countrymen. But the players agreed to leave religion at the door.

They found a way to unite. Not only that, they inspired. “People’s support for us started increasing. We started seeing that we are unifying the people,” Sadir said. As such, “the players became determined to bring the cup back to Baghdad.”

James Montague, a journalist and author of the book “When Friday Comes: Football, War and Revolution in the Middle East,” spent some time with the team before they flew out for the tournament.

He recalls a group of players who had all been deeply impacted by the conflict in their homeland. “Many had lost loved ones while some had threats of violence directed against them or their families by insurgents. There was also the threat of kidnap by criminal gangs,” he said.

But Montague also detected a strong determination among the players to put aside religious and cultural differences. He describes a camaraderie, humor and unity between teammates.

On top of this, Coach Vieira had decreed that the players would not pray together in the dressing room before the game or at half-time, something teams from the Middle East commonly do, Montague said.

Yet small measures such as this were only part of the reason this Iraqi team would write an underdog story more unlikely than “Leicester City winning the English Premier League or the Red Sox breaking the ‘Curse of the Bambino,’” Montague added.

‘Giving happiness to the people’

Iraq finished top of their group, and a win against Vietnam in the last eight took them into the semi-finals.

A virtual unknown when he arrived, coach Vieira had worked wonders to bring his charges even this far.

The Brazilian had been able to instill a belief and togetherness in his squad. Living in each other’s pockets as they prepared and trained certainly helped.

But as the tournament progressed, Vieira began to understand what he described in 2007 as his players’ “pain” and desire to “give happiness to their people” who were suffering back home.

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Emotional coach recalls Iraqi sporting triumph
04:34 - Source: CNN

Talking to CNN again earlier this week, Vieira said “it was very difficult to manage the psychological side of things” given the situation back in Iraq.

Vieira recalled that before the competition began when the team was preparing in Jordan, the team’s physiotherapist had requested to go home to Iraq be with his wife who was due to give birth. As he went to collect his ticket to return to be with the team, he was killed by a car bomb.

When something like that happens “you don’t know (whether) to cry with them, to try to explain to them to be strong,” Vieira said.

Sadir describes a manager strongly focused on the emotional side of the game.

“He was very close to the players, that was his main thing,” Sadir said. “Not the tactics or the physical status, his main focus was how to get to be close to the players, make them love him and support him. He was very successful in doing so.”

By the time of the semi-final against South Korea, Iraq were the darlings of the competition and support for their pursuit of the trophy had spread around the world.

When they beat the Koreans in a penalty shoot-out, it seemed that nothing could stop them – except, perhaps, a violent jolt of reality.

Bloodshed in Baghdad

Back in Baghdad suicide bombers struck, killing dozens of fans who had taken to the streets to celebrate the semi-final win.

One bomber detonated a vehicle in the Mansour district of the city killing 30 and wounding 75 more. A short while later, in the southeastern neighborhood of Ghadir, a second car bomb killed 20 and wounded at least 60.

It was rumored that some of the players didn’t want to go on, considering the risk of further bloodshed a price too high for a simple football trophy.

Yet Sadir cites the reaction of one bereaved mother, whose son was killed while supporting the team, as providing the motivation for those who doubted whether they could play in the final.

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This particular woman had appeared on Iraqi television after her son’s death and refused to bury her child until Iraq had returned home as champions.

“The biggest thing that impacted our morale and persistence and confidence to continue playing for the team … was the incident that took place, the woman who lost her son,” Sadir said. “This was a turning point.”

Vieira becomes emotional, shedding a tear when he recalls the players meeting after hearing the words of this bereaved mother. Despite the doubts and difficulties, “we decided to continue (and that) we had to win this competition,” he said.

And so, on 29 July 2007, Iraq took on regional heavyweights and three-time Asian Cup champions, Saudi Arabia, for the biggest prize in the country’s sporting history.

Throughout the tournament, Iraq had been defensively sound, conceding only two goals. In the final, they were again resolute. But it wasn’t until the 72nd minute when they scored the crucial and historic goal.

A header from team captain, Younis Mahmoud, after Saudi keeper Yasser Al Mosailem misjudged a cross, sparked emotional celebrations among Iraq players and fans in the stadium.

Mahmoud took off, with teammates chasing him beyond the advertising hoardings and along the running track which surrounded the pitch at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.

Party in the streets

The joy was just as unrestrained back home.

People took to the streets despite the fatal bombings just a few days previous.

Among those present was CNN’s senior international correspondent Arwa Damon who describes the day as one of her “best moments” in reporting from Iraq.

Damon found herself witnessing scenes of happiness she had barely thought possible until that point.

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Arwa Damon recalls Iraq's 2007 Asian Cup win
04:05 - Source: CNN

She described heading out with US troops to a usually hostile Shia neighborhood in Baghdad after the game to be met with a scene of heartwarming jubilation.

“That particular day, nobody cared. We were swarmed. There were floats. There were small little fireworks. There were people wearing wigs with these huge glasses on spraying us and the troops with silly string. It was absolutely surreal and completely spectacular,” Damon said.

“I’m still smiling now as I remember it. It was just such a rare and unique moment for that country that has been through so much,” she added.

Iraq’s footballers would go on to play in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, where they would face off against the best from Europe, Africa and the Americas.

But the memory of that brief national moment of togetherness and happiness would fade. Iraq continues to be a dangerous, violent and divided place.

In recent years, the emergence of ISIS has plunged major cities like Mosul and large swathes of the country into chaos.

The sectarian murders have also continued with 15,000 people killed in 2014 alone.

According to Iraq Body Count, there were 4,000 violent incidents across the country in 2016. That’s seven times as many as were recorded in 2003, the year of the US and allied invasion.

Unsurprisingly, the football team has barely played within the country’s borders in the decade since.

But thanks to the likes of Vieira, Mohammed and Sadir, Iraqis will always have the memory of 2007. Ten years on, it’s a story still generates powerful emotions for those involved.

“There was fire inside each of us,” Mohammed said. “The explosion, the people who died, hearing about friends who died – we had to give this happiness to the Iraqi people,” he added.

Illustrations and graphics by Kate Chan