Sports have always been a great unifier of people. Be it in ancient days which ultimately led to the starting of the modern day Olympic Games or more recently when a game on the field can be a neutralizing factor, one that builds up people and brings them together for a common goal. The legendary Pele narrates an incident involving him a few years back when he accepted an invitation from the Government of Cote d’Ivoire to play football even when the country was torn apart by strife and division. Despite the risk involved Pele accepted the offer and played in Cote d’Ivoire and managed to bring an entire nation together at least for one night to come along and watch him play the beautiful game.

Sheikh Mohammed’s generosity

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai showed the extent of his backing for the Iraqis when he sent a special flight to Thailand to bring back the victorious Iraqi team to Dubai. Celebrations were aplenty and Iraqis residing in the UAE turned out in large numbers to participate in the special celebrations held at the indoor hall of Al Ahli Club, a day after their historic victory.

Sheikh Mohammed did not stop here. He presented the team and the support staff with a purse of Dh30 million for being crowned the champions of Asia. His son Sheikh “The UAE has always been a close supporter for Iraq and its people. And Sheikh Mohammed has shown the world that the UAE and its people share in our joy and triumph,” stated Hussain Saeed, the President of the Iraq Football Federation (IFF).

“The UAE has always backed us, and Sheikh Mohammed’s act has proved to the world that we are not alone in our moment of glory. We salute Sheikh Mohammed and we pay our respects to the people of this country,” Saeed added.


A similar phenomenon occurred recently when Iraq’s heroes upset all calculations to lift the Asian Cup for the first time-ever in the history of the competition. Prior to the tournament, no one would have admitted that the Iraqi outfit was among the favourites for the title. Their best ever performance till this year was three consecutive appearances in the quarterfinals at this continental competition. And even while going into the final against Saudi Arabia, the odds were stacked heavily against Iraq, simply because they did not even possess a proper training ground back home compared to their well-to-do opponents who had been promised huge cash incentives by their government should they lift the Cup for a record fourth time.

But the Iraqi players displaced the lack of facilities with ample amount of courage, determination and the will to win. And when Younus Mahmoud rose above the Saudi Arabia defensive wall in the 71st minute to head in the only goal of the final, an entire nation erupted in joy. The sheer manifestation of effervescence was spontaneous and everyone for a moment forgot that this was a country ravaged by internal factions and splits following the downfall and subsequent death of Saddam Hussein. And when the triumphant captain lifted the trophy above, an entire continent stood up in mute respect to salute the sheer potential of the human spirit to fight against all odds.

“We wanted to give something to the people so that they could smile at least for a day,” shrugged goalkeeper Noor Sabri.

“We had utmost respect for Saudi Arabia going into the final. But we also knew that if at we had to win, it had to be this time. We were focused on what we wanted to achieve on the field so that it could be reap rewards out of the field,” added the 24-year-old from Baghdad, now revered for that Yeom Ki-hun save in the penalty shoot-out against South Korea in the semifinals.

“We were in constant touch with our family and friends back home, and all of them kept on encouraging us throughout the tournament. And as we progressed with positive results, we were convinced that we were doing the right thing…we could feel the whole of Iraq breaking out into a single smile,” he disclosed.

This smile has lasted for more than a few weeks now with Iraqis the world over, whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd, have come together under the one single umbrella of an Asian Cup triumph. “It’s an obligation that we’ve fulfilled for our country. We love Iraq and we wanted to show the world that we too are a football power. We want to be known the world over for the positives rather than the ongoing war that has torn us apart,” admitted assistant coach Rahim Hameed.

The real hero: Jorvan Vieira

One of the most influential personalities in Iraq’s astounding Asian Cup win was their Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, and skipper Younus Mahmoud was among the first to pay tribute to the trainer’s commitment to a cause.

“It was the greatest pleasure to work with Vieira. We have had such a great experience,” admitted Mahmoud, the tournament’s joint highest goal scorer following his team’s victory against Saudi Arabia.

Vieira had just six weeks to work with an Iraqi team that was not even assured of a proper field to practice in any place in Baghdad. Mahmoud, who plies his trade as a professional with Qatari outfit Al Gharafa, was pleasantly surprised when he saw Vieira’s ambitious programme for their camp in Jordan. “None of us took him too seriously, we were all joking about his plans of winning the trophy especially because we had less than two months to prepare,” Mahmoud admitted.

“He knew nothing about any of the players and yet he came with such a strong belief and confidence that we could win. That was the first step for us,” he added.

The rest is history as Mahmoud had the pleasure of hoisting the trophy high above his head as an entire nation exulted with him and his teammates. “I salute Mr. Vieira and would have loved to have him continue with the team,” Mahmoud hoped.

However, immediately after the final whistle had been blown at least three countries were seeking the services of Vieira to take over their national squads. Iraq will now have to look out for a way to keep the winning touch without their Brazilian coach.


Hameed has seen the worst phase of Iraqi football, both as player and official during the erstwhile Saddam Hussein regime. After serving the national team midfield from 1980 till 1993, Hameed nudged his way into assisting in the management of the national squads. He was a member of the Iraqi squad to the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. He also served the team during Asian Cup duties, though unsuccessfully. “This triumph is like a double celebration to me. I may not have been able to achieve much as a player, but this Asian Cup triumph has given me everything that I ever dreamed of, and at the same time, it has made our country proud,” Hameed said.

The assistant coach relented that his team’s worst fears culminated following their semifinal win against the mighty Koreans. “Suddenly the players started believing in themselves and went in with a mind frame that if they could beat Korea, then it would not be a problem getting past Saudi Arabia,” Hameed offered.

Such confidence, however, did not mean that the Iraqis did not respect their opponents for the title. “On the contrary, we went in with a lot of respect for Saudi Arabia, knowing very well that they had the experience of playing on the big stage. We never under-estimated them, but went in with a firm belief that we could do it,” the assistant coach stated.

With the belief and confidence came that one magical moment and an entire nation was left gasping for the seconds to tick, and even the final four minutes of injury period played by the referee became a sort of a torture. “After the goal, all of us on the sidelines were ill at ease. I just could not sit, I wanted the time to pass, I wanted the players to fall back and defend, I wanted to see the referee signal the end of the match,” Hameed confided.

And ultimately, when that did happen, all of them, including Hameed rushed onto the field to participate in a moment of madness, a moment of glory, a moment of exultation, a moment to savour for a lifetime. “It was truly a magical moment and I will relive this moment for a long, long time,” Hameed confessed.
Now that the hard work and toil has been crowned with glory, Hameed will have to build up on a side full of confidence and poise, as they get ready for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games qualifiers. “The good part of the deal for me is that I have a team full of confidence. I need to guide this bunch so that we can achieve another dream for Iraq. And then of course, we will have the qualifying rounds for the 2010 FIFA World Cup,” the assistant coach added.

With one of the goals accomplished, ambition has struck the players as they seek further heights to their careers for the sake of their country. “Now we know for sure that the whole world looks at Iraq differently. At least now, we are no longer a country that is known for the US invasion and the war, but a country that has been able to fulfill a sporting mission for its people,” observed midfield maestro Qusai Muneer, who subsequently signed up for Sharjah Club for the upcoming season.

“It was a sight to behold immediately after we won. Everyone, be it the Sunnis, the Shias or the Kurds, the country became one in celebration. It was truly a spontaneous eruption of joy for a nation,” Muneer stated.
One of the things that kept him motivated personally was the steady flow of text messages on his mobile during the course of the competition. “It showed us that we had an entire nation backing us. It was an amazing feeling to feel connected with your own people at such a distance,” he shrugged.

Consequently, the repercussions of the historic win are being felt even today. Though most of the players ply their trade elsewhere in the region, the Iraqi Government has come forward to reward them with gifts as a sign of acknowledgment of the unity that they have ushered into the very psyche of the people. “The message of peace and unity was always at the back of our minds. We wanted to bring peace to a war-torn country. It was like a moral obligation to us. We had to do it,” Muneer observed.

“More than 50 Iraqi people were killed while they were celebrating our victory against South Korea, and one of the victims, his mother said when her child was lying in front of her, she didn’t weep but she said: ‘I present my son as a sacrifice to the Iraq national team.’ So we had to win,” skipper Mahmoud stated.

“We do not know anything about politics. We are sportsmen, and yet we would love to see sports unifying the country and pushing us to focus on what lies ahead rather than what has passed us by. Look at Iraq today and you will see a happy people, and they have become happy only because of this success,” Muneer narrated.

“This is not the end of the road, this is only the beginning. We want this dream to run on to its full course. The World Cup qualifiers are next and we will have something more to prove to the world,” Muneer reflected.

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