The following article is a direct translation of extracts taken from French sports website SoFoot.com, featuring IraqFootball.me’s Hassanane Balal and IraqSports’ Hassanin Mubarak. Both individuals were interviewed by journalist William Vénétitay, whose article can be read in full here. This article remains the property of SoFoot.com and has been solely translated for Iraqi football fans who do not speak French – this article is not the property of IraqFootball.me and all credit goes to the original author and publisher. You can contact William Vénétitay on Twitter, on his personal blog, and using the comments section below. We thank the author for his colaboration with IraqFootball.me and look forward to working closely with him on future projects.
We would also like to send a special thank you to Wadak Ahmad, Flora Raad and everyone else who helped with the translation of this article.
Following the 2003 invasion, the Lions of Mesopotamia produced one of the biggest upsets of Athens 2004 by reaching the semi-finals of the Olympic Men’s Football tournament. Now, twelve years later, Iraq have once again qualified.
It now feels like an eternity ago – 12 August 2004 – when Cristiano Ronaldo had broken down into tears. At least according to the Iraqis, who love to add an extra element of drama when speaking about one of their finest footballing achievements. That evening, at the Pampeloponnisiako Patras stadium, everyone anticipated an easy win for Portugal, who featured the likes of Bosingwa, Hugo Viana and Cristiano Ronaldo. The stadium held 2500 Iraqi fans who were delighted by the mere presence of their team in the competition. Their belief grow and they cheered for the entire match. They had reached a euphoric stage once Salih Sader sealed their victory (4-2) in injury time. It was the beginning of an incredible journey for a country which was, and remains, torn into pieces.
There were extremely difficult conditions for Iraq to properly form a functioning football team. The team had played only one home tie against Jordan and, when travelling, the players would be forced to sleep at the airports due to lack of financial backing and abysmal planning from the Iraqi FA.
Iraq had qualified by beating Saudi-Arabia 3-1. However, in April 2004, their German coach Bernd Stange had stepped down out of fear for his life. The situation in Iraq became uncontrollable. Iraqi coach Adnan Hamed had taken over instead, giving him only four months to prepare for the Olympics. The team arrived in Greece without much hope. “We had to fly from Baghdad to Athens in a military plane. When we got there, it was as if we weren’t turning up as representatives of an entire nation at the world’s most popular sporting event, but more for a Sunday league match.“, said former Iraqi midfielder Nashat Akram. He added; “The players had only one jersey kit, that they should wash after every game”.
The opening victory against Portugal created pandamonium for Iraqi fans. “There were frequent power cuts around Baghdad. The fans watched those matches in the dark with generators that allowed you to only keep the TV on. The streets were so deserted. They celebrated the win as always: horns, waving the Iraqi flag and shots fired into the air, “said Hassanin Mubarak. “Football has always been the most popular sport. It’s all that we have, even if the Iraqi league is not prestigious. In a strange way, it produces a lot of talent. More than we think. Thousands of kids play every day and start at the bottom. This was the case with Nashat Akram and Younis Mahmoud, “says Hassanane Balal, British and Iraqi-born founder of the site Iraqfootball.me.
The team continues with a 2-0 win against Costa Rica. The big event is only three days later where Iraq take on Australia in a quarter-final. The Australians packed a good punch, with a selection of young good young players already plying their trade in Europe’s finest leagues, such as one Tim Cahill. The Australian back four had defended poorly from a corner, which Emad Mohammed capitalised on and scored a bicycle-kick winner to seal the game for Iraq. The victory had pushed Iraq one step closer to an Olympic medal.
Iraq lose the semi-final and subsequently fell short in the match for third place, against Italy (0-1, goal from Gilardino). However, the Olympics success paved the way for the Asian Cup victory in 2007. Today, all these players from the Asian Cup winning side have now retired. “This new generation has shown the way for the new players to follow, like Ali Adnan and Sherko Kareem, who are now playing in Europe.”, says Hassanin Mubarak. “More generally, today, football in Iraq is in better shape, but there still remains huge amounts of corruption”.
The Iraqi football team reflects Iraq, with players coming from all across the country (Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk …). It would be wrong to underestimate such a symbol in wartime. “ Since its inception, the national team has always highlighted the diversity of the Iraqi people, Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish … We are a peaceful people and we can do great things when we are united. Football is only one example , “insists Hassanane Balal.