When football united a war-torn country: Recalling Iraq's fairytale 2007 Asian Cup triumph

The National's Ali Al Shouk takes a trip down memory lane to when his national team achieved one of the most remarkable feats in football history during a time of extreme instability in Iraq

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In the realm of football's greatest underdog triumphs, only a handful come to mind.

Whether it's Leicester City defying the odds to win the Premier League in 2016, Greece's stunning victory in the 2004 European Championship, or Denmark's unexpected triumph in 1992.

Yet, there is one achievement that stands above them all – Iraq's historic win at the 2007 Asian Cup.

Let me take you back 16 years.

It was a very difficult time in Iraq. US-led invasion, sectarian divisions and the war on terror had destroyed all hope for the people of this great nation living in the cradle of civilization.

Saddam Hussein's regime was gone but chaos was left in its wake and a vicious sectarian civil war broke out in every corner. By 2007, the violence had peaked and more than 100 people were being killed every day in Baghdad.

Throughout this utterly devastating period, there was an emerging golden generation of Iraqi footballers. However, no international matches could take place in the capital, so Iraq’s home games were played in the UAE.

I escaped daily car bombs and the civil war in my country to move to the UAE at that time while our national team qualified for the Asian Cup.

But the team preparations were in disarray. The 22 players who went to Southeast Asia for the continental competition couldn’t simply leave the war behind.

No one in the country had been untouched by it. Many of the players had witnessed first-hand relatives and friends being killed directly in conflict.

Threats from various sectarian militia groups who despised the fact the Iraq national team contained Shia, Sunni and Kurd working together. Criminal gangs tried to extort players by threatening them and their families.

The winger Hawar Mullah Mohammed said in an interview that he would have to turn up to training with a machine gun.

The team didn’t have a manager until two months before the tournament was due to begin. The man who was ultimately appointed, Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, revealed that the team’s physio was killed in a suicide bomb before the tournament.

Unsurprisingly, little was expected of Iraq at the Asian Cup co-hosted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

I was newly married when Iraq started the tournament against Thailand in Bangkok, and they claimed a 1-1 draw against the hosts in Bangkok.

I watched the second match with my wife and friends in a small studio in Sharjah when Iraq pulled off the shock of the tournament, a 3-1 victory against powerhouses Australia. The nation, grappling with death rates and bombings, found rare joy in their football team's success.

Our hopes were boosted as the final group game with Oman ended in a goalless draw. Combined with Australia's 4-0 win over Thailand, Iraq had topped the group and advanced to the knockout stages.

We started to believe Iraq could do something significant in the tournament.

In the quarter-finals, we watched on stunned as Iraq defeated Vietnam 2-0, thanks to goals from talismanic striker Younis Mahmoud.

Alone with my wife, I watched Iraq's semi-final match against another Asian football powerhouse, South Korea. They beat Iraq 3-0 in a friendly match shortly before the tournament and were the firm favourites to progress to the final, but our players gave us new hope.

Neither side could score after 90 minutes and extra time, so it went to penalties to decide which team would reach the final. I was sitting on the ground in front of the TV, disconnected from the entire world to watch the penalty shootout.

With the shootout at 3-3 and tension increasing, Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri saved Yeom Ki-hun's penalty, before Kim Jung-woo - needing to score to keep South Korea alive - hit the post to send Iraq to the final.

Two weeks earlier, it wasn’t within the realms of possibility that this Iraq team could reach the final.

I cried like a baby and hugged my wife with joy. It was an unforgettable moment.

I took my Iraq flag and went on to the streets in Sharjah to join dozens of Iraqis out in celebration. In Iraq it was the same; fans flooded the streets, flying the Iraq flag for the first time in years.

But unfortunately, the historic victory was marred by tragedy at home.

Two separate terror attacks claimed the lives of 50 civilians and another 135 injured as authorities in Baghdad declared that the bombings had been directed at revellers celebrating the Iraq victory.

The players were completely shattered by the news and it was understood that some didn’t want to play the final against Saudi Arabia considering the risk of further bloodshed in Iraq.

Later we heard that the team was watching the news as the mother of a 16-year-old boy who died during the attacks, was interviewed. She begged the team to continue in memory of her son, vowing not to bury him until they won the title.

Nothing could separate Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the final in Jakarta, until in the 72nd minute, Younis Mahmoud took a slashing strike from the top of the box and nailed it into the back of the Saudi net. The Iraq section inside Gelora Bung Karno Stadium went berserk.

As the final whistle blew to confirm Iraq's 1-0 victory and their new status as Asian champions, I started jumping and yelling like crazy. I was watching with my friends and wife in our small studio when all of us burst with happiness.

I hugged my wife and carried her when she whispered in my ear to be careful. I forgot that the previous day she told me that she was pregnant with my son. July 29, 2007, was a double joy for me.

I sat on the ground for a moment to understand what had just happened. But then, the partying began.

We took to the streets of Sharjah celebrating with thousands of people waving Iraq flags, shutting down the streets dancing with joy for the first time as Iraqis in the 21st century. The scenes were just incredible as Iraq momentarily came together to celebrate this miraculous achievement.

Similar scenes were taking place all over the world as people of Iraqi origin flocked to the streets of major cities to celebrate this historic achievement. It was a party of epic proportions and I couldn’t believe my eyes. A shattered nation was united for the first time after the war.

In a country so devoid of good news, these players reminded a nation on the brink of total collapse of the importance of unity.

I still remember the English commentator of the final, Simon Hill, summarising Iraq’s success: “The team without hope has brought joy to its fractured nation. Football succeeds where politics has failed."

Many people don't realise that the 2007 Asian Cup triumph was more than just a trophy for Iraqis. It was a symbol of hope and faith that one day everything would be back to normal.

I called my friend in Iraq, Sarmad, to share the joy with him.

“Ali, football has done the one thing no one in the world could do,” Sarmad said.

It wasn't just a win. Those players brought us back to life. It was a great example of where football united a war-torn country.

Today, my son is 16 years old, and he knows now that Iraq's triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup is not just a great underdog story. It is the greatest story in football history.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 7:12 AM