It is 10 years since Iraq’s stunning victory at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.
“We were sitting after training before the final and then all of a sudden we heard a car bomb happened back home and almost 75 people lost their lives and one lady she lost her son and she said on TV that she just wanted us to win and that’s what will make her happy and forget about her son and we sat down and said let’s do it for her and for her son and that was a real motivation for us – to make others happy and it was not just for ourselves.”
Speaking to FOX Sports Asia this week, these are the words of Ali Abbas, who at the age of just 20 was part of an Iraq squad that completed one of the most remarkable footballing stories of all time as they left their bloodied homeland to travel to Southeast Asia and lift the Asian Cup exactly ten years ago this week.
Even with a squad that will go down as one of the best that the nation had ever produced, the Lions of Mesopotamia still entered the 2007 Asian Cup as far from certainties to progress from a group that contained Thailand, Oman and (in their first major Asian tournament) Australia.
It was a playing group, marshalled by the affable Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, that crossed religious and ethnic divides and which has become a symbol of unity for a nation in continued need of just such an ideal.
Football is the one thing that unites Iraq.
A nation that has been seared by bombings, kidnappings and death for close to two decades and a football team that has felt that loss dearly with numerous friends and family members of that triumphant 2007 side directly impacted, no more so than when their team physio was killed in a bomb attack prior to a pre-Asian Cup training cup as he went to collect his plane tickets.
Three years earlier I’d met the core of the group that would go to lift the continental title when they played as a very young squad at the 2004 edition of the Asian Cup as almost a preparation tournament for the upcoming Athens Olympics later that year.
At both of those competitions it was evident that this was indeed a special group of players; at the Asian Cup they progressed from a very difficult group only to fall to the hosts and eventual finalists China whilst at the Olympics they stunned powerhouse Portugal in the opening match, eliminated Australia in the quarterfinals before falling to Paraguay in the semis.
Just as notably though they were a group that was incredibly tight-knit, seemingly free of ego and more than willing to share their story – and that of their battered homeland – with anyone who asked.
I saw this first hand after having interviewed a couple of the players at the 2004 Asian Cup when I was invited to dinner with the entire squad the night that they were eliminated by China in Beijing where you really had the sense that this was a squad that would go on to do something special.
As violence continued to tear their homeland apart though you could still never imagine that the end result would be that they would be crowned Asian champions.
Having played a couple of warmup matches in Korea prior to heading to Southeast Asia in mid-2007 the mood was buoyant in the camp. After conceding an earlier opener to Thailand in their first match in Bangkok they rallied to draw 1-1 with the hosts and then proceeded to humiliate an Australian side packed with Europe-based stars 3-1 in their second match before a scoreless draw with Oman eased them through to the quarters.
Vietnam were then seen off 2-0 with relative ease, before a memorable victory over South Korea on penalties in the semifinal – but one that came with yet more violence.
As thousands of jubilant fans took to the streets to celebrate reaching the final, multiple bombs ripped through Baghdad killing more than 50 people.
Alli Abbas in action versus Australia in 2018.
As Abbas told FOX Sports Asia when we spoke with him earlier this week those horrific events even further hardened an unshakeable belief that they would not be defeated in the final.
“When football comes in Iraq we all just sit in front of the TV and watch the games because this is our passion and then people don’t care about religion or culture they only care about football and winning and it is the responsibility of players that play for the national team to win to make the country happy.
“We sat as a squad and talked about the sad stuff that was happening in Iraq and we knew that if we were to have success at the Asian Cup then we could unite the country and make everyone happy.
“We sat down in the rooms before we went out and we promised ourselves that we would give everything we had and we would not let our people down.
After a tense opening half that ended scoreless, the leading figure in this side, captain Younis Mahmoud rose to meet a corner from the right from a Kurdish member of the side, Hawar Mulla Mohammed, to seal victory for this side that so embodied the power of football for their nation.
Rising to collect the trophy with each member of the playing and support staff wearing black armbands to honour those killed in their homeland it was surely one of the most heartwarming stories not in just in football but indeed in modern sporting folklore.
It was also the end though of a wonderful side that contained the likes of the great warrior captain, Younis, the outstanding technician Nashat Akram, flying winger Hawar, midfield general Qusay Munir and an underrated defensive core.
The side slowly disbanded through retirement and form with Ali Abbas one of the few survivors of that side that has failed to progress to either the World Cup or the pointy end of the two subsequent Asian Cups. But as Abbas tells FOX Sports Asia with the recent ban on the hosting of international matches now overturned hopes are high that the next generation of Iraqi talent can live up to this now near-mythical 2007 team.
“If you look back to that group we had in 2007 they had played for the national team for almost six or eight years together and with only one or two coaches but now we haven’t seen a coach that will stick for a long time and many coaches have come and gone and they would change players and there has to be a solution for that and not always chopping and changing coaches.
“It’s been almost how many years, since maybe 2003, that we haven’t played inside Iraq and it’s so important for players and fans to see their own team and we’ve built stadiums and the country is safer and safer and it’s time to make the people happy, the fans happy and unite the people.