Greatest Underdog Stories: When a war-torn Iraq became Asian champions

Sports possess an amazing power and enable us to be and to do so much more. It has the ability to help individuals become more than a solitary unit and work in tandem for something bigger and better, it helps galvanise a country for a common cause and, better still, it has the ability to give a sense of identity to an entire nation. The 2007 AFC Asian Cup was one of the tournaments that illustrated the power of sports.

Heading into the 2007 tournament, Iraq was being ravaged by the war mounted by the George Bush administration as the United States looked to disarm Saddam Hussein of the alleged “weapons of mass destruction” that he possessed – they were never found. The Iraqi national team had to go to the neighbouring nations just to get some match fitness, and as a consequence not much was expected of them in the tournament jointly hosted by Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

And having never won the tournament, they also lacked any pedigree in the most prestigious international competition in Asia. But what is sport without its ability to make anyone believe.

Iraq, led by Brazilian manager Jorvan Vieira, were placed in Group A alongside Thailand, Oman and Australia – their first major tournament after becoming a part of the Asian confederation. Lions of Mesopotamia, as they are fondly known, started their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Thailand. Sutee Suksomkit had given the hosts the advantage with a sixth minute spot kick, but Iraqi captain and forward Younis Mahmoud brought the scores level with his 32nd minute strike.

In a surprise result, Vieira’s men defeated Australia 3-1 in their second group game. Nashat Akram had given his team the lead in the 22nd minute but it was all square with when Mark Viduka struck at the beginning of the second half. Hawar Mulla Mohammed and Karrar Jassim scored a goal each of their own to help their side gain all three points against the Socceroos.

A scoreless draw against Oman was enough for Iraq to top the group with five points, ahead of Australia in second.

Iraq were then up against Vietnam in their quarter-final game and took an early lead when Mahmoud struck in the second minute, the Iraqi captain doubled his team’s lead in the 65th minute with his third strike of the tournament and it was enough for Iraq to get past Vietnam with a 2-0 win.

They were up against one of the giants of Asian football, South Korea in their semi-final fixture. And in a tightly contested encounter both teams were tied 0-0 at the end of normal time as well as extra time. It finally came down to the penalties, and Iraqi players, perhaps made fearless with the harrowing situation back home, didn’t miss any of their first four spot kicks to progress to the final after a 4-3 win as the South Koreans missed their last two.

It was an all-Arab final as Iraq took on Saudi Arabia for an unprecedented title triumph. Mahmoud, imperious all through the tournament, scored the game’s only goal in the 62nd minute to give joy to his long-suffering countrymen and seal an unlikely and unprecedented title.

As if to underline the gravity of the situation back home, 50 fans were killed as the ensuing celebrations were specifically targeted due to the large gathering of people they attracted.

There cannot be many victories to equal what the Iraqi national team did in 2007.