Iraq's footballing 'Lions of Mesopotamia' survive death threats and violence to make the cup final

The assistant coach fled Baghdad after receiving threats that his son would be kidnapped, the goalkeeper lost his brother-in-law in the sectarian violence and even fans have been targeted by suicide bombers.

So the fact that Iraq's national football team has made it to tomorrow's Asian Cup final is nothing short of a fairy tale.

The rainbow team is not only giving a country riven by conflict something to celebrate with its remarkable run, but with Sunnis and Shia, Arabs and Kurds in the line-up, it is also a reminder that unity is not an antiquated relic of the past.

Iraq have never made it to the final before, and three-times champions Saudi Arabia are the only thing standing between them and the trophy. The political ramifications of playing Osama bin Laden's homeland are not lost on some fans. "Everybody will be hoping that the team can take revenge on the country that produced terrorism," said Bashar Ali, who runs a take-away in Baghdad's Karrada district.

But for others, Sunday's showdown is a real chance to forget the daily diet of bombings and assassinations. "We don't have that many occasions that make us happy," said Sinan, 21.

Iraqi football has had a chequered history in recent years, particularly under Saddan Hussein's son, Uday. As head of the Iraqi Football Association, he sadistically used the sport and its stars as playthings.

Uday forced the country's best players to play where he chose; training sessions were called on a whim in the middle of the night and on at least one occasion he made a side play with a concrete football.

When players had a bad game, they would be locked up. The sentence depended on the crime, from two days for a defensive error to three weeks for a missed penalty.

Former Iraqi footballers such as Sharar Haydar, who defected in 1998, described being whisked away by the secret police, to a cell where he was beaten on the soles of his feet up to 20 times a day.

Today's footballers go on the pitch for love of the beautiful game, although few of them do so back home, with most playing for clubs around the Middle East or North Africa.

Since US-led forces parked their tanks in the al-Shaab stadium, the national team's home games are in fact away, in places like the United Arab Emirates. And in the build-up to this month's Asian Cup, the Iraqi FA essentially set up home in an Amman hotel lobby.

Coaching has been another headache. Akram Ahmed Salman became the third coach to resign in three years, citing death threats. And with good reason. Last September, gunmen pulled up outside the home of Ghanim Ghudayer, a member of Iraq's Olympic football team and grabbed him. He has not been seen since. A similar fate has been suffered by referees and administrators.

To fill the coaching void, in came the Brazilian Jorvan Vieira. But his attempts to bring some Latin flair to the team soon ran into trouble, as he held training sessions with just six people. Then the team arrived in Bangkok for the cup, with old kit and no training equipment.

Yet in spite of the chaos, they made it to the quarter-finals. Two hours before that match against Vietnam, midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed received a phone call from the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, telling him his step-mother had been killed in the violence at home. He played on, and the team won 2-0.

But on reaching Kuala Lumpur for the semi-final with South Korea, the Iraqi team arrived to find only seven rooms available for the 30-strong squad. To make matters worse, the rooms they were waiting for were being occupied by players from Iran.

In the wake of the nail- biting penalty shoot-out victory over South Korea, and with Iraq's place in the finals booked, fans in Baghdad erupted onto the streets, dancing and slaughtering sheep in thanks to Allah. Then suicide bombs went off, killing 50 people and wounding more than 100.

That has raised fears about Sunday's final. "I don't think many people will celebrate on the streets, and for the terrorists to have denied us that basic right is a shame," said dentist Riyadh Jaafar.

Some mothers have said they will keep their children at home, saying they don't want them to become orphans for the sake of watching a football match with friends. But other residents are defiant. "We will celebrate regardless of the threats. My friends have already bought flags," said Jalil Abdulla, a 16-year-old student. In the end, whether Iraq gets its dream ending will up to 11 men on the pitch. But the so-called "Lions of Mesopotamia" know they have a whole country behind them.

"We have a really good chance to make history for Iraqi football," said the goalkeeper Noor Sabri Abbas, "We can unite the people behind the team, whatever group they belong to because, at the end of the day, they are all Iraqis."

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