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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable