Rise of the Underdog: Iraq's journey from prison camps to Asian Cup glory

Iraq Underdogs GFX
The Middle Eastern nation's football team emerged from a period of barbaric rule to secure one of the unlikeliest international tournament wins ever

How could one of the most unstable countries in the world win a major football tournament?

Iraq has been ravaged by war for most of the last four decades, with millions of people dying because of conflict. Sport, let alone football, is something few associate with the Middle Eastern nation given the various issues that have engulfed it either side of the millennium.

As such, seeing the country win the Asian Cup in 2007 will go down as one of sport's great fairy tale stories, even though its origins are not something to be celebrated.

Iraq's football programme was run by the murderous Uday Hussein – son of Saddam – for nearly 20 years. Players were routinely threatened and tortured if they were deemed by Uday to have underperformed.

Iraq had been a successful football nation throughout the 1980s – winning a gold medal at the Asian Games in 1982 and qualifying for their only ever World Cup at Mexico 1986.

But when Saddam appointed Uday to take over as chairman of the Iraqi Olympic Committee (NOC) and the Iraq Football Association (IFA) in 1984, football in the Arabic country began to take a dark turn.

Uday became enraged if the team or individual players failed to perform to his standards, and he began handing out punishments in response.

In 2004, around 12 months after Uday was killed by U.S forces, his torture chamber for athletes and other dissidents was revealed to journalists. On display were chain whips with steel barbs attached, caskets with metal spikes that athletes were forced into and other medieval torture equipment. NOC official Talib Mutan revealed Uday would also administer beatings, sleep deprivation and burning treatments to athletes that displeased him.

"During the old regime, Uday was looking for results and he wanted winners. He didn't like second place," Mutan said. "If the athletes didn't come first, they were punished. And he would punish the people around the athletes, their managers and coaches included.”

With the fear of being tortured or imprisoned during Uday’s reign, the performance of Iraq’s football team began to suffer significantly.

No better was this illustrated than during a penalty shootout in an Arab League match against Jordan, where only three Iraqis were willing to take a spot-kick due to the threat of punishment from Uday if they failed to score.

"Many of the footballers refused to even touch the ball, but then we realised that if no one accepted we would all be punished," Abbas Rahim, who was one of the three players who did step up to take a penalty, said of the incident before his untimely death in a car accident in 2012.

Abbas missed his spot-kick, and two days later was asked to appear before Uday before being blindfolded and taken away to a prison camp for three weeks. “End of story,” was how Abbas described his situation.

With the Gulf War commencing in 1990, Iraq were banned from most competitive competitions in the Middle East region and were forced to solely play friendlies. Performances dipped through the decade, and as pressure ramped up on the Hussein regime, Uday become more and more ruthless with the treatment of the team and players

It was only after the turn of the century as U.S and Allied forces began to close in on Saddam that Uday’s focus was taken away from Iraqi sports and the national team began to thrive once more.

Members of the Iraqi national football team 2007

Having failed to participate in any Asian Cup between 1976-96 and without a major trophy in the decade before the millennium, Iraq won their first ever West Asian Football Federation championship in 2002 before collecting the gold medal at the West Asian Games three years later. Young striker Younis Mahmoud, who scored in both title wins, was handed the nation’s captaincy in 2006 – a role he would hold for the next 10 years.

Despite their resurgence, no one gave Iraq much of a chance at the 2007 Asian Cup – a 16-team team tournament held in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam – with regional heavyweights Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia expected to be the contenders.

Iraq entered the tournament without stability having sacked manager Akram Salman a month before it began before appointing Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira in his place. Several of their players, meanwhile, had suffered tragedy relating to the conflict either before or during the tournament. Goalkeeper Noor Sabri’s brother-in-law had been killed, midfielder Nashat Akram’s relatives were murdered and Hawar Mulla Mohammad’s stepmother died two days before the quarter-final.

After a disappointing draw against hosts Thailand in their opening group match, Iraq stunned Australia 3-1 in their second game before a goalless draw against Oman sealed qualification to the knockout stages as group winners.

Paired against fellow surprise packet Vietnam in the quarter-finals, Iraq comfortably progressed with a 2-0 win thanks to two goals from skipper Mahmoud to set up a semi-final clash with South Korea in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite being dominated for much of the 120 minutes by one of the tournament's favourites, Iraq scraped through via a penalty shootout, sparking thousands of fans to take to the streets of Baghdad in celebration of their team's achievement in reaching the final.

The jubilation was cut short, however, when it was revealed a suicide bomber had killed 30 supporters celebrating the victory in the streets of Iraq’s capital.

“There was this mother who had seen her little boy killed by a bomb after the match and she was saying he had been sacrificed so that we would win the match,” Mahmoud said ahead of his side's meeting with Saudi Arabia in Jakarta. “We knew we had to win the match for her and so many other people.”

Iraq AFC Cup 2007

Win it they did, with Mahmoud scoring the winning goal with a header in the 72nd minute to give Iraq a fairytale 1-0 victory. The skipper was awarded the competition's best player and golden boot awards, while Sabri won best goalkeeper and Akram was named in the team of the tournament.

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"Some of [Iraq’s players] are going to be killed if they go home to Iraq,” coach Vieira said following the triumph. “When you don't know where your home is, where things are, you are lost in space. It's like when you have no organisation in your house: You don't know where you put your socks or your trousers.

"My players are lost people because of the war. They've been through so much that I have not only to be a coach, but a psychologist, a father, a friend."

The togetherness of Iraq’s Asian Cup victory was never witnessed by Uday Hussein, who was killed four years previously. But everything that team stood for, as it brought glory to a downtrodden nation, ensured that the legacy of those that came before them will never be forgotten.