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Iraq’s AFC title gives people hope for recovery

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Ed’s note: In the rush to crucify Rob Styles, predict Jol’s replacement and criticise Manchester United, we tend to forget that there’s more to football than just the Premiership, and indeed, that there’s a lot more to football than just winning and losing.

It’s fair to say that in recent years, the reputation of football as the “beautiful game” has taken somewhat of a battering, owing to a number of different reasons.

The reputations of players is at an all time low, with the likes of Joey Barton, El-Hadji Diouf and Lee Hughes all bringing down the names of many other respectable people within the game with their antics on and off the pitch. The shrouded mystery of the Carlos Tevez and Harry Kewell transfer sagas shows there is little clarity anymore in the game and how people are motivated by money in a way that was rare in times gone by.

Even FIFA, the organising body who is meant to stamp out troublemakers and make the rules clear and apparent, always seem to make things as complicated as possible, with a clear line of corruption running through the group itself, as exposed in Andrew Jennings’ book focusing on bribery within the corporation.

Certainly in recent times, football has allowed itself to come in for plenty of criticism, with many believing the soul of the game is being lost to major-money groups looking for commercial gain rather than sporting development, with the players on the pitch failing to be the role models that were commonplace in the 20th century.

However, despite the sullied nature of the game in the modern era, football always manages to throw up a story every so often that inspires and reminds fans of why we love the game and what it stands for. The unbelievable cup run of fourth division amateurs Calais to the Coupe De France final in 2000 was one for the romantics, while the formation of the likes of FC United, AFC Telford and AFC Wimbledon proves that there is a conscience within a number of fans of the game. However, it has been a long time since football has provided a tale such as that of the Iraqi success in last month’s Asian Cup, and it will be a long time again before we have a fairytale such as this in the game.

The Iraqis went into the competition knowing they were capable of surprising a few people and certainly their ambitions stretched to another quarter-final spot in the competition. However, the likes of Japan, South Korea and the newly introduced Australia stood in their way of victory in the tournament outright. Couple this with the tumultuous circumstances surrounding the build up to the cup, with the team having to train outside of their home country owing to the conflict in the gulf state at the moment, and not many would have given the side a prayer of making significant moves in the tournament.

A 3-1 victory over the star-studded Australians in their second group match set the tone for the rest of the championship. The Iraqis went on to top Group A ahead of the Socceroos, Oman and co-hosts Thailand, before seeing off Vietnam 2-0 in the quarter final, player of the tournament Younis Mahmood scoring both to set up a semi-final with South Korea. The Koreans has somewhat stumbled into the semis, incurring a defeat in the group stages against Bahrain and scraping past Iran in the quarter-final on penalties, but they were still highly fancied to end the Iraqi run in the competition and make their sixth final in 15 competitions.

However, neither side could make the breakthrough, despite chances for both teams to win it in 90 and 120 minutes. So, to penalties, and while the Iraqis confidently slotted home all four of their spot-kicks, Yeom Ki-Hun saw his effort saved by Noor Abbas and then Kim Jung-Woo smacked his effort off the crossbar, sealing a shock victory for the gulf state and putting them into their first ever final.

The only problem was that they were up against Saudi Arabia, probably the standout side in the tournament, along with Japan, who they knocked out in the other semi-final, winning a high quality match 3-2 in the end. Having scored 12 goals on the way to the final, pundits predicted that they would finally be the side to break down the resolute Iraqi defence and go on to claim their fourth title, setting a new record.

Certainly the Saudis created more than the Koreans in the semi, their best chance coming when Yassar Al-Qahtani got into the penalty area, only to see his effort deflected over the crossbar by Bassim Abbas. But despite the chances presented to the Saudis, it was still deadlocked as time pressed on during the match. It was in the final quarter of the match where Iraq pressed for a winner, and in the 71st minute, an Iraqi corner was badly misjudged by Yaser Al Mosaliem, allowing Mahmood to steal in and head home what would ultimately be the winner. His fourth goal of the competition made him joint top scorer, won him the best player award, but most importantly, Iraq held out with aplomb in the last 20 minutes, to secure an improbable, but fully deserved victory.

Cue pandemonium back in Iraq. Thousands took to the street celebrating the team’s victory against the odds, disregarding the potential danger to their own lives, as shown in the aftermath of the win over the Koreans, when 50 people were killed in two separate roadside bomb attacks in the capital, Baghdad. Upon the teams’ return to their home country, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki summed up the situation perfectly: “When they competed with others, none of them considered themselves as belonging to any groups or to any ethnicity, denomination or religion. They belonged only to Iraq, and their only concern was the victory of Iraq.”

Given the circumstances surrounding the team in the lead-up to the tournament, the Iraqi players and fans could barely have expected a moment like this. However, despite the ordeal it was to prepare for the finals and the inability of the players to fully bask in their glory upon their return to their country, all of them were just happy to be at this point, irrespective of how they got there.

A look at the history of the national team prior to the toppling of the Hussein regime reminded players of how lucky they were to even have this opportunity.The Saddam Hussein years in Iraq were marred by stories and events depicting the religious divide in the country, the sectarian acts such as that in Dujail, which eventually cost Saddam his own life, along with the reported torture of thousands of Iraqi men and the alienation of the Shi’ite faith were all commonplace within Saddam’s Iraq. Some of these facets were passed down the line to Saddam’s sons, in particular Uday Hussein, who in the 80’s was made Commissioner of Iraq’s Olympic Committee. This role was then stretched to become the unofficial “leader” of the national football team.

For Uday, failure was not an option, and as a result, any sign of weakness in the players wearing the national shirt resulted in torture, humiliation and severe punishment. Stories have emerged in the aftermath of the death of Uday and the falling of the prior regime about how players who missed good chances in matches would be imprisoned for up to a month for their crimes. How missing a training session because of a family illness or death meant repeated flogging with electric cable and how a missed penalty in a shootout would result in players being forced to take baths in vats of raw sewerage.

How the Iraqi authorities repeatedly managed to trick the FIFA authorities who inspected the country remains a mystery, but the “motivational” actions of Hussein continued unabated for many a year. It’s still a part of their career which haunts any player that was involved,particularly Habab Jaffar, the former Iraqi captain, who suffered persistently at the hands of Hussein and his henchmen for the team’s inconsistent performances. But even after all he’s been through, his biggest regret is not that he ever represented his country, or that he was routinely tortured and imprisoned by Hussein. No, as he said in interviews after the Hussein’s fled, “I wish I were 20 again, so I could show them how I could have played.” It is another testament to the power and allure football can hold, even through it has probably left Jaffar with scars he can never remove.

This is relative in some respect to the country itself. After all that the Iraqi people have had to endure in now what is approaching five years, there are some scars on the people, and on the country itself, which can never be removed from memory and history. Football cannot change history, it can’t take back the pain of losing a loved one, or it can’t give a child back the legs it lost in a car bombing accident, nor will it ever remove this war from the archives in the future and make it seem as if nothing happened.

However, what it can do is alleviate the pain and the hurt and remind the people of Iraq what they can still achieve. It gives people hope, it inspires joy in a time of suffering for many, as shown by the wild celebrations on the street after Iraq’s Asian Cup victory. Ultimately, the joy only lasts briefly, but it is proof that Iraq can still perform and still achieve on a great stage. For many people, it may only be a minor note in the history of a country torn apart in rcent years, but it can bring unbridled happiness at least momentarily for some people.

But there is also another facet that needs to be considered. As much of an emotional fillip this brings to the people of Iraq, the footballing achievements of the team themselves cannot be ignored. The Asian Cup may not be the most prestigious of competitions in the eyes of ourselves, but try telling that to any country who takes part. The likes of Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Australia all send their best possible squads to the championships, in fact one of the reasons Australia switched from the OFC to the AFC was in order to have more competition in higher quality tournaments, such as the Asian Cup. They take it seriously, as does everyone else who takes part, so for Iraq to go and topple Australia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia on their way to victory in the final represents a shock, but proves that there is a genuine football pedigree running through the country. Looking at their past achievements also proves this.

Lest we forget, it was only three years ago that Iraq sent a predominantly Under 23 team to the Olympic games in Athens, and the team again surprised many en route to finishing fourth, defeating Portugal, Costa Rica and Australia on their way to the semi-final, where they were beaten by Paraguay 3-1 in the semi-final, before losing the Bronze medal match narrowly by the single goal to Italy. Despite the lack of medals to bring home, the competition was a big success for Iraq, who weren’t even expected to win a match, let alone make it out of the group stage. It was the foundations for many of the team to go on and achieve bigger and better things in the future, as proven now three years later with the hubris of the Olympic team going on to win the Asian Cup.

Going back even further, the records show how even under the reign of Saddam and the “guidance” of Uday Hussein, Iraq sill achieved to a decent standard in international competition. They are one of only eight Asian countries to ever reach the finals of the World Cup, back in 1986 in Mexico. Although they lost all three games, no side humiliated them, and they could at least return home with their heads held high, saying they had reached a World Cup. Couple this with four consecutive quarter-final appearances in the Asian Cup, up to and including 2007, and it proves that in their own right, Iraq are a decent team on the international stage. But now the aim to get better, and achieve more in order to prove that they are rightly the champions of Asia and fit to represent the country on a global stage.

First of all, Iraq will look to be one of the three Asian sides that will qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing in the final round of qualifying in October and November. Along with this, as current AFC champions, Iraq will compete in the 2009 Confederations Cup against the other continental champions in a vastly profitable competition for the competing teams. Up against the likes of Brazil, the USA and Italy, Iraq will be able to show just how far they have advanced in recent years. The likes of those three teams is certainly a step up, but it will be the sort of teams Iraq will have to encounter if they achieve their ultimate goal: make the 2010 World cup finals.

The route to South Africa is complicated and lengthy in the AFC, and Iraq have to start from scratch, firstly in a two-legged knockout match against Pakistan in October, then onto a four team group stage in which they will have to finish in the top two, before finally entering the group stage with another nine teams, split into two groups of five, with the top two in each group qualifying automatically, while the third placed team in each group makes it into a play-off against one another, with the winner probably facing New Zealand for a place in the World Cup outright.

Iraq will be aiming to get one of the five places on offer for the Asian nations through qualifying, even though they will be up against the big names in the AFC once again, who this time will not underestimate the team’s ability, as may have been the case for some last month. However, Iraq cannot rely on other teams to falter on the way to South Africa, the team has already proven they belong amongst the big names in Asian football, now they need to strengthen and reinforce that position. Therefore, this is the standard and calibre of opponents they will need to play, and beat if they are to reach the big time in international football.

The team is anything from the finished article, and in all honesty, they are still a level beneath the likes of Japan, Australia and South Korea, despite the cup victory, consequently the Lions could be in for a bit of a shock if they get to the business end of AFC qualifying. Couple this with the departure of Jorvan Vieira after his brief spell in charge of the squad and Iraq still have a few things to sort out in preparation for World Cup qualifying, with the issue of security also needing to be addressed, otherwise it could be neutral venues for the Iraqi side, instantly putting them at a disadvantage in preparation for the challenges ahead.

It’s not all good news just yet for the Gulf nation, and plenty of work must be done before they can truly be placed among the top tier of national teams in the Asian region, but certainly they are in a much healthier position than they were a few years ago, certainly they have achieved much more than anyone could have expected.

For now though, the future of the Iraqi team will not concern the people of the country too much, they can still look at the team’s victory in the Asian Cup as a marker and celebrate the joy it has brought to Iraqi lives torn apart by conflict, poverty and disaster. Stories like these have become quite common in football in recent years, as shown by the success story of Croatia in finishing third at France 98 seven short years after a bitter civil war tore apart the Balkan region, also laying claim to the independent state of Bosnia, which itself has healed throughout the years with regeneration schemes in co-operation with the likes of UEFA helping to develop the country, while the national team begins to make itself a contender in European competition. Now with the tale of Iraq and their success, it’s another example of what football can bring to a country and people ravaged by other factors, be what they may.

Who knows, maybe 20 years from now we will be able to talk of how Sudan and Somalia came out of nowhere to take the African Cup of nations or qualified for the World Cup, and what it did for the people of the country, who have also seen grave poverty and war themselves. For them, much like it has been for Iraq in recent times, football will not be the ultimate answer to all the problems in the country. It doesn’t profess to being so, it never has been the case, nor will it be the case, but as the people of Iraq have shown in the aftermath of their country’s Asian Cup victory, football can bring hope and joy to the most desperate and stricken people in the right circumstances. It’s something that seldom happens in any other field than sport, in particular the beautiful game.

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