Where have years of bloodshed and violent dictatorship left the game in Iraq?
On July 29, 2007, on a hot, summer day in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, two Arab countries faced each other in a battle for Asia’s biggest football tournament. One nation in particular, faced heavy odds against them due to the turmoil and bloodshed it has faced over the years, and the fact that they were facing a team who has had huge success in the tournament over the years in the shape of Saudi Arabia. The underdogs in this case and in this match-up was Iraq, a nation that surprised everyone including myself, by reaching the final of this illustrious tournament when some believed that they would struggle to even get past the group stages due to lack of preparation and the appointment of a new coach in Jordan Viera, just weeks before the tournament began.
Iraq, with influential players like Younis Mahmood and Nashat Akram and a rock-solid defence, began the brightest and dominated proceedings against the favored Saudi Arabia. Chance after chance flew by and then, there came that moment. A corner which Hawar Mohammed took sailed past everyone including the keeper, but not the captain tournament’s best player Younis Mahmood, who headed the ball emphatically into the net. That goal stole the hearts of many around the world and gifted Iraq the prestigious title as the best in Asia, and sealing their fairytale run in what many call one of the most memorable and biggest sporting upsets in recent history and probably of all time.
In this article, I’ll be exploring the state of football in the country, a country with great history and prestige in the sport, a country that had its highs and lows especially under the dictatorship of the Hussain family.
Sport in the country, according to respected Iraqi football writer Hassanin Mubarak, can be traced back to its Mesopotamian roots over 4000 years ago, through trade relations with the ancient Chinese civilization where one of the earliest forms of football, was first understood to have begun. The first club ever to be formed in Iraq was a club named Al Quwa Al Jawiya, a club that still exists today who’ve won the league on seven occasions, and was founded in a period in which the country was under British occupation on July 4, 1931.
They played their first game against a team from the RAF (Royal Air Force) base of Habbaniya, a group of British forces, a day later on July 5th. Al Quwa Al Jawiya or Air Force in English, won that match, a win which helped in populating the sport around the country as many Iraqis began to support the club. The British helped in the growth of the sport in Iraq, even after the nation gained its independence in 1931. They continued to train, teach and play against Iraqi teams, helping in the process in forming Iraq’s first national side which included the legendary Emmanuel “Ammo” Baba, who later went on to become a successful manager and Youra Eshaya, who’s recognized as the first Iraqi to play outside of the country when he went on an 18 month spell in England with Bristol Rovers in 1954.
Iraq formed its FA three years after World War 2 ended, on October 8, 1948, and formed the country’s first football league a year later in 1949. The league included six teams in two groups which was eventually won by Basra Petroleum Company, after they defeated Al Kuliya Al Askriya 1-0 in the final. Iraq’s national side played its first ever international match against Turkey’s B-side in May 9, 1951, where they were hammered 7-0. They played their first ever official international match in the Pan-Arab Games in Beirut, six years later in 1957, against Morocco. In that match, the aforementioned Ammo Baba scored Iraq’s first ever international goal. Baba would go on to make history again, but not for the right reasons, when he got himself sent off in Iraq’s second match in the competition against Tunisia becoming the first Iraqi to get sent off in an international match.
Iraq have won many titles and had many successes beginning in the early 1960s winning the Arab Cup on four occasions in 1964, 1966, 1985 and 1988, the Gulf Cup on three occasions in 1979, 1984, and 1988, and the biggest achievement-qualifying to the World Cup held in Mexico in 1986. Star players like Hussain Saeed, Ahmed Radhi, and the again aforementioned Ammo Baba, who managed the national side on six different occasions from 1978 to 1996, all played a huge role in the country’s success.
Despite the period of dominance and success on the football pitch, the country experienced a brutal period under the regime of the Hussain family who took over the country in 1979. The sport, in particular, underwent through a rough period when Saddam Hussain assigned his sadistic and violent son, Uday, to take over as head of both the Iraqi Football Association and Olympic Committee in 1984.
During his reign, Iraqi athletes were threatened, beaten and even killed if they lost a match. Some were caned, hosed down, whipped, had their heads shaved, and even killed, if they lost a match. (Mass graves were discovered in several Iraqi stadiums by Iraqi and US forces after the Hussain family was overthrown in 2003) “One time after a friendly match against Jordan that we lost 2-0,” former Iraqi star Sharar Haydar recalls, “Uday had me and three teammates taken to the prison. Where they took off our shorts, tied our feet together and placed our knees over a bar as we lie on our backs. My punishment because I was a star was 20 lashes per day.” Not only were players tortured and beaten, but also referees and officials as well who refused to comply with orders to fix a match. “I was the referee of a match between Al- Shorta and Al Quwa Al Jawiya.” A former FIFA-recognized referee Furat Ahmed Kadoim recalls. “I was told that Shorta should win, but I refused to fix the match. I was taken by Uday’s men to Al Radwaniya prison, where they used hoses and a cane to beat me three times a day. My punishment was 10 beatings each time.” (Quotes provided by Sports Illustrated)
The intimidation, power and authority of the Hussain family was also used when they took a no-hoper club, Salahudeen, to league champions in just one year after taking control of the club in 1982, through intimidating referees and opponent players. Players weren’t even allowed to play abroad unless they pay over 60% of their salaries to the head of the Football Association (Uday himself), highlighting the corruption and complete mistreatment of athletes, referees and officials during that period. Many athletes were reluctant to participate in competitions due to these threats against them and their families. (There were only four Iraqi participants in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney).
The sport took another turn for the worst when Saddam decided to invade Kuwait in 1990, which cost the cost the country dearly with numerous suspensions from tournaments and competitions, and clubs like Al Zawraa, Iraq’s most successful club with 12 titles, struggling financially and the national side having trouble finding opponents willing to play against them due to international sanctions against the government. Fan protests also took place in this period, when three were killed and 25 others wounded when they shouted slogans against the regime in Basra in 1992.
And then came that day on March 2003, when the US decided to invade Iraq, which all but ended the Hussain family’s grip and control of the country around a month later on April 9, 2003. Uday was killed alongside his brother Qusay, in an air strike in July of that year. While their father, Saddam, was tried and executed three years later on the first day of Eid Al Adha in 2006.
After the end of the end of the 24 year regime under Saddam Hussain and his family, Iraq has sought to get the country back on its feet again despite the violence and lack of security it was facing from daily bombings, shootouts and a complete lack of safety. The US-led invasion forced the national team to play in neutral venues outside of Iraq for qualifiers and such, which also caused the abandonment of the football league as well for two seasons in 2002/2003 and 2003/2004. The FA have also received stick from FIFA, after the Olympic Committee controversially dissolved the Football Association in 2008, amid government meddling and interference in the way it’s run.
Because of that, FIFA suspended Iraq twice in three years due to government interference. To improve the state of football in Iraq, the Football Association cooperated with FIFA on three GOAL projects beginning on October 15, 2003 to help in building new infrastructure from a new training center, a new headquarter, placing artificial turfs and providing coaching and education courses to improve domestic competitions and officiating standards. FIFA have spent around $2 million in total to fund these projects. The Iraqi Premier League, which was formed in 1974, had a change in format to an English Premier League- like style to a 20 team battle where each team plays each other home and away, instead of the previous group stage format.
The FA have also finally resolved their issue with FIFA after a controversial election, riddled by sectarian political disputes, especially over former Iraqi star Hussain Saeed, who was president of the FA at that time. Saeed, was a former deputy to Uday, and this angered the Maliki government which is predominately Shi’ite. He also made many controversial decisions during his reign with the most infamous, his decision to disallow relegation and promotion in the 2009/2010 season of the Premier League, in which a total of 43 clubs made up the division that season. In the end, the election was won by Najah Hammoud last June, finally ending this long-standing dispute.
The FA have made plans to build new stadia like the Al Anbar Stadium which will seat around 30,000 spectators and will cost around $100 million in total. There is also the much anticipated Basra Sports City, a multi-purpose leisure facility which will cost a reported $715 million to build. Inside the Sports City will be the Basra Sports City Stadium, which is expected to seat 65,000 spectators. Basra Sports City was expected to host the 2013 Gulf Cup, but unfortunately, Iraq was replaced controversially as hosts by Bahrain with the reason being that the Sports City won’t be ready by the time the tournament begins, even though Iraq refuted that and believe that it was politically motivated due to their support of the protests in Bahrain.
It was also confirmed that government will hand the Kurdistan region, a region which was the scene of a horrific genocidal massacre by Saddam Hussain and his forces that killed over 3000 people in the city of Halabja in 1988 through the use of chemical weapons, $100 million to improve sports infrastructure and to renovate stadiums and sports halls, with 74 projects reportedly underway in the region. Barcelona have also agreed to set up a football academy in the country, while digital leader LG have renewed its sponsorship of the FA for another two years, giving them a much needed financial boost as well as other benefits like providing training facilities, equipments and practice sessions.
Despite the improvements, the Iraqi Premier League is still considered a rather weak league with its clubs still underperforming in continental competitions, its last major achievement reaching the final of the Asian Champions Cup (now called the Asian Champions League) via Al Rasheed in the 1988/89 season, largely due to Uday’s influence as owner/founder of the club. Some clubs still struggle financially and have inadequate equipment and facilities, which haven’t been renovated since the Hussain regime, and despite being able to play at home for the first time in years against Jordan last September, FIFA have ruled that the country didn’t meet security standards and requirements specified in their safety regulations, which shows that security in the nation is still a major concern.
Despite the harsh circumstances the sport and the country, in general, has been going through, the national side has performed remarkably well, gaining fourth place in the 2004 Olympics and defying the odds to win the 2007 Asian Cup. The side, ranked 78thin the world, is now coached by Brazilian legend and 2004 Asian Cup winner with Japan, Zico, has reached the final stage of the World Cup Qualifiers in Asia and has a good chance of making it to the Finals in Brazil in 2014. With players in the shape of Younis Mahmood, the 2007 Asian Cup Player of the Tournament, Nashat Akram who was very close to a move to Manchester City in 2008 and had a spell in Holland with Twente, and Hawar Mohammed, who became the first Iraqi to feature and score in the Champions League with Cypriot side Anorthosis Fumagusta, Bassim Abbas who plies his trade in Turkey with Konyaspor, all play abroad and have the skill and experience to guide the side to its second World Cup finals.
The win in Jakarta will always be etched in my memory and to the memory of anyone who tuned to watch that historic win. I’m Jordanian, but I never felt prouder and happier for our neighbors. They showed resilience, belief, and of course, their talent and ability in winning the title despite the harsh and terrible conditions the nation has been going through over the years. Iraq is now going through protests for better social services, living conditions, and an end to corruption. I hope people of Iraq achieve their goals what they set out for, and that we get to get to see the national side play against the best in the world in Brazil come 2014.