As Iraq preps for Confed Cup, Asian Cup triumph seems a world away
There might have been hardly an Iraqi fan in Jakarta's Bung Karno stadium on July 29, 2007, but it hardly mattered; not anymore. The Iraqi national team had gotten used to not playing in front of its own supporters. Baghdad, with its burning sectarianism, long had been off-limits for the game's fans, managers and, of course, its players.
Four years of assassinations, kidnap, war and, before that, state-sponsored tyranny had crippled the country and destroyed its soccer league. The Lions of Mesopotamia, a rare beacon of national unity and pride that brought Shia, Sunni and Kurd together, was a homeless tribe, playing to near-empty, shabbily kept stadiums in Dubai or Aleppo or Amman. Yet here they were, celebrating beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final of the Asian Cup in Indonesia to become continental champions and, with it, a shot at the Confederations Cup.
In the modern history of Iraqi soccer, victory and unspeakable horror have become intertwined with depressing regularity. While always being considered a regional power, Iraq didn't actually make the World Cup until Mexico 1986. And it wasn't until years later that the truth emerged about the team's motivational techniques.
A month before that victorious night in Indonesia, I had followed "Captain Rahim," as the players called him, and the Iraqi team to Amman, Jordan, where they were due to play a regional tournament against the likes of hated rivals Iran and Syria. The team's newly appointed Brazilian manager,
Vieira didn't know the players well; they weren't too familiar with him either. "This is the hardest job in the world, definitely," he told me. "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, the situation changes."
It changed so often, in fact, that one member of the team's staff never made it to Amman. "We lost our physio two days before we got here," said Vieira. "A bomb exploded in Baghdad and he was passing by. He was on his way to the travel agent to buy his ticket to come here."
The dangers were such that most players chose not to return home. Goalkeeper
"I'd lost two members of my family," explained
Every member of the team had been threatened on two fronts: by insurgents, who feared this single remaining totem of Iraqi nationalistic pride, and by criminals, who targeted the players and their families for ransom. To make sure they stay out of their clutches, almost all of the players ply their trade in more lucrative, and safer, leagues in Qatar or Saudi Arabia -- an issue which is starting to breed resentment back in Iraq.
Vieira's job in securing Iraq's first major piece of silverware was immense. He was fourth choice for the job but managed to knock together a team and get them to the Asian Cup on a shoestring, flying economy class on a grueling 16-hour flight to Southeast Asia, with just four weeks preparation. A 3-1 victory over Australia signaled their potential, but it was the semifinal against South Korea that was pivotal. After winning the penalty shootout, news filtered through to the team that a suicide bomber had blown himself up near a group of cheering fans in Baghdad.
The death toll that night, which also included fans killed accidentally by celebratory gunfire, hit 50 and the team discussed quitting. But after watching a news report where a bereaved woman, hysterical after her son's death, begged the team to continue in his memory, there was only one choice and fate would produce the just result. In a country so devoid of good news and inclusive institutions to be proud of, the Lions of Mesopotamia reminded a nation on the brink of imploding the importance of unity.
What is for sure, though, is that as a modicum of stability has returned, Iraqi soccer has endured a fall from grace. Vieira quit in the afterglow of victory, saying he would "go crazy" if he stayed. A string of coaches came and went, sacked in increasingly bizarre ways, with ex-Norway coach
A returning Vieira was fired earlier this year after a disastrous Gulf Cup campaign. Political intrigue and claims of sectarianism stung the FA, too, which was disbanded by the Ministry of Youth and Sport. While the FA, led by all-time record goal-scorer
The Confederations Cup may seem like an irrelevance, but don't tell the Iraqis. This is their one chance to remind the world that this generation of talented players was no flash in the pan, a quaint sporting aberration dreamed up in a Hollywood script. They've faced much tougher roads to victory. Discount them at your peril.