Picture the scene: it’s the beginning of the twenty-first century, and all those promises to bring about a more peaceful and harmonious world seem to have disappeared, along with the empty beer bottles and used party poppers that were chucked out on January 1st. George W. Bush and Tony Blair are currently spoiling for a fight with the so-called “Axis of Evil”, and have focussed their crosshairs on the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. As far as they’re concerned, and despite the paucity of evidence and preparation to support a declaration of war, Coalition troops crossed the border that joins Iraq and Kuwait whilst simultaneously pounding numerous Iraqi cities with an array of bombs that are so advanced that most intelligence personnel, let alone ordinary civilians, don’t even know that they exist. It’s currently March 2003, a month that will signify a dramatic change in the history of the Iraqi nation.
Fast-forward to July 2007: in football news, the story dominating the summer is the arrival of David Beckham in Los Angeles. Here is a global figure that simultaneously manages to unite and divide people, based on his footballing ability, his boyish good looks and sheer marketability. Cynics viewed his move to LA Galaxy as a means to further line his pockets on the back of the five-year contract that was to pay an estimated $10 million per season. Optimists saw it as an opportunity, where the most famous footballer on the planet would help boost attendances of a league and sport that was jostling for coverage amongst other sports like the NBA, NFL, MLB and the NHL.
Yet, football was already a flourishing interest that was especially popular in numerous parts of America, in particular within communities where there were large groups of immigrants. Football frequently served as a way of breaking down barriers in communities where prejudice and xenophobia could easily lead to unrest. From Houston to Chicago and Dallas to Los Angeles, Iraqis from all manner of backgrounds had settled and made America their home, with some beginning to adopt local sporting teams, such as LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire, as their own. However, whilst they got on with their daily lives, their hearts’ panged with the anguish for what was happening back in Iraq.
It’s odd how your nationality is very personal to you, isn’t it? Some of the supporters of the aforementioned teams and residents of the aforementioned cities would see themselves as Americans and nothing else. Others saw themselves as solely Iraqis, seeking to preserve every possible remnant of their culture and create a home away from home in their adopted communities. Others still saw themselves as something in the middle, straddling two nationalities, cultures and identities. Football provided a space for people to forget these internal tensions, and instead adopt the universal language of kicking a leather spherical object around.
Back to Iraq. With the simmering summer heat, Iraq was reaching boiling point. Daily news stories broke of casualties suffered by Coalition forces, and thousands more suffered by local civilians - often undocumented by Western-journalists.
That said, amongst the unimaginable chaos that prevailed throughout much of Iraq, people sought to get their lives back together. The people of Iraq, having witnessed years of violence and suffering as a result of external wars and internal pressures, had developed quite the resilience. In a sense, something similar to the message of “keep calm and carry on” that Winston Churchill sought to spread in Britain in the Second World War.
Before long, small cafes were re-opening to satisfy the population’s insatiable appetite for football. The desire to re-establish a sense of normality frequently outweighed the fear of being killed by bullets or shrapnel. Plus, against all odds, Iraq had qualified for the 2007 AFC Asia Cup finals, finishing top of their group, ahead of China, by virtue of their goals scored. In the face of football nations with greater pedigree, such as South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan, nobody gave Iraq a prayer.
Football is a game of countless variables, where all manner of things can happen when twenty-two players take to the pitch for ninety minutes. Iraq weren’t able to play any of their home qualifiers at home - instead taking place in the United Arab Emirates. Their preparations would no doubt have been severely-hampered by events back home, though it also galvanised them.
Back home, sectarian violence had reared its ugly head, yet these Iraqi players realised that if peace was to replace hatred, then something dramatic would have to happen.
After a steady start against Thailand, Iraq defeated Australia and drew with Oman to qualify as winners of Group A with five points. They gave the people of Iraq, hope to cling onto. The players of Iraq matched this sense of hope and yearning with a new-found, greater level of determination that no amount of pre-match preparation could equal. They pushed on, defeating hosts Vietnam 2-0, then snuck past South Korea on penalties, winning 4-3 after battling to a 0-0 draw. Their destiny lay ahead in the form of Saudi Arabia.
With six previous appearances in the final, three of which resulted in victory, Saudi Arabia were the clear favourites. Two bomb attacks on Iraqi fans celebrating victory against South Korea had almost resulted in Iraq not playing in the final, but some soul-searching and a desire to honour the dead led to them lining up in Jakarta on 29th July 2007 in front of sixty thousand fans.
Iraqis everywhere expected. Iraq had much of the play, creating several good chances, before Younis Mahmoud headed in from Hawar Mulla Mohammed's corner, sending it over the scrambling Saudi keeper. One-nil. To a nation that was fractured, that struggled to get enough kit and had financial difficulties prior to the tournament beginning. A nation that had known so much darkness, that could have so easily fallen on its knees, now tasted the ecstasy of victory. For them, there was once again a feeling of pride and prestige for their country. Iraqis were proud to be Iraqis, with Shias, Sunnis and Kurds celebrating across Iraq and further afield. Could this be the catalyst for peace, lasting peace that politicians hadn’t been able to deliver?
Ten years on from this giant-killing, Iraq is still fractured. However, what this victory highlighted is that this country's cultural communities can all be brought together in harmony. Football has the ability to bring peace.
By Steven Ruffhead. Header image credit goes fully to Blue Mix.