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World Football's Defining Moment: Iraq Rise from Guns to Glory

Yoosof Farah@@YoosofFarahSenior Writer IIIApril 21, 2010

Imagine one day seeing two militiamen attempting to kill each other with hate-filled passion, and then the next day seeing the same two men cheering and hugging one another with genuine affection.

An incredibly bizarre situation, this is what happened all across Iraq on July 29 2007, and was witnessed by this writer's uncle in Basra, south of the country, following the Iraq national team's victory in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup Final.

Had it been captured on camera, it would've surely been one of the most iconic images in sport; the power of football uniting communities and bringing people together.

For the hundreds of millions of people involved in football across the world, when thinking of the iconic moments in the sport, many will often think of events like the Munich Air Disaster, the whole eventful entity that is Diego Maradona, etc.

And in the decade of the noughties (2000-2009), people's thoughts would be of Zidane's infamous headbutt, the Calciopoli Scandal, Thierry Henry's "Hand of Frog", etc.

But what many people neglect, as the headline suggests, is Iraq's unexpected 2007 Asian Cup triumph, which was their first ever major title.

Well, "unexpected" in that the vast majority who never paid attention to the Iraqis' football exploits obviously wouldn't have known the talents their team possessed, especially considering this is a team who gets virtually no international or continental media coverage.

That's not to say they were ever in any significant contention for the Asian Cup title of course, because the likes of South Korea, Japan, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia were all powerhouses with European stars, and whose supporters demanded success.

For me, the 2007 Asian Cup is a very vivid memory, as I myself being an Irish-Iranian had a big interest in the tournament.

I was in Iran for the whole duration of the competition, and everywhere I went, the talk of the town would be about the national team, and how Ali Karimi (then of Bayern Munich) and English Premier League star Andranik Teymourian would lead Iran to the success it so rightly deserved.

And in essence, this is why Iraq's eventual triumph was so big and such a shocking event in the history of World Football.

I had the view from Iraq, considering my Iranian family had initially emigrated from Iraq having grown up in Baghdad, and the fact my uncle still lives in the country.

The 2007 Asian Cup is a memory for him that will forever live in his mind. As the tournament commenced, unlike almost every other nation, Iraq did not take notice of its team; life was as normal.

And when talking to Iraqi football fans, this was because nobody in the country had belief in their national side.

"How are we supposed to compete with the likes of Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea and all of those wealthy countries?" said a friend of my uncle.

"They have superstar players in Spain, England, and Italy who live in luxury and have everything they need to succeed.

"What does Iraq have? We don't have a proper league, and the national team players can't even train sometimes because they're a terrorist target."

Due to the obvious safety situation in the country, Iraq has no national league, with various regional leagues set up across the country, ensuring no team has to travel for prolonged periods of time, i.e. ensuring they're not at risk of gunfire or roadside bomb attacks.

With a country in such sporting disarray, their achievement suddenly seems a bit more remarkable.

Don't get me wrong, they've always had the talent, just not the infrastructure of everyone else to maximise their potential.

Captain Younis Mahmoud, and 25-year-old potential superstar Nashat Akram, were the two outstanding talents in Iraq's 2007 Asian Cup campaign.

The latter currently plays for Eredivisie high-flyers FC Twente in the Netherlands, and is on the radar of several English Premier League clubs, most notably Sunderland and Manchester City, either of whom would've signed the player back in 2008 had he been granted a work permit.

And as for the former, according to Iraqis all you need to know about this man is that he changed World Football forever.

It was his goal on 72 minutes that gave Iraq a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia.

A very special win considering it won them the 2007 AFC Asian Cup trophy, and momentarily united the most divided, war-torn nation on earth.

If you want an idea of just how truly epic this moment was, go back to their semifinal win over South Korea, a team who have Manchester United's Ji-Sung Park amongst other stars.

It was reported that "two bomb attacks have killed at least 50 people and injured 135 in Baghdad as crowds celebrated the Iraqi national football team's win over South Korea."

And for my uncle, it was the same in Basra; football had brought Iraq a bitter-sweet mix of death and joy.

Some people were celebrating, others were dying from the trigger-happy joy displayed by the people cheering.

One fan epitomised the joyous atmosphere in the country: "I am nearly crying for joy," 30-year-old fan Nuri Najjar told Reuters in the southern city of Basra.

"Iraq's victory with this harmonious team represents the way we should all live together."

Fast forward a few days to the final, and you can immediately see how massive this match was now.

As my uncle said, "forget your Brazils and Spains and Englands on World Cup Final day, this moment really did grip a nation like you will not believe.

"Everyone you knew and could see, literally everyone across the entire nation, stopped for this moment.

"It was not a football match; it was Iraq's one chance to show the world who they truly are."

It was an incredible situation. In Japan, South Korea, and my country Iran, the whole nation was one of anger, shock and disappointment at such a poor showing and shortfall in expectations.

On one side of the border, the rich, powerful Iran, the Goliath in Asian football, was cursing its luck, distraught at getting knocked out in the quarterfinals. It was a country of riches drowning in its own sorrow.

On the other side, the lowly, weak, poor Iraq, the little David in Asian football, was in a state of unbelievable delirium, shocked that this whole series of events was actually real.

After the 2007 Asian Cup Final, put Saudi Arabia in Iran's place and you realise how they felt.

For Iraq, their above description wouldn't do their triumph justice.

Celebratory gunfire lasting well into the night; bitter enemies (Shia and Sunni Muslims, and the Kurds), all hugging each other and wrapped up close together in Iraqi flags; people crying with tears of joy; Allah receiving more prayers of thanks than ever before; it's clear this victory was more than massive.

This was colossal for not only the entire nation, but also for the men themselves.

The Iraqi players knew what this 1-0 win symbolised; free from the terror of Saddam Hussein, these men finally proved what the country of Iraq is capable of.

Liberated from the ineluctable torture they'd receive for failure (Saddam Hussein had athletes tortured and seriously injured if they failed to win or get a Gold Medal) under Hussein's dictatorship, these players were able to freely express themselves, and let the football do the talking.

Free from the pressure also of an expectant nation and intense media scrutiny, these footballers took their opportunity to give their nation the impossible.

Nobody ever believed it could happen, but it did; eleven men running around on a pitch brought shining, delightful joy to a devastated nation, and briefly changed the entire country.

Everyone from local police to thousands of UN peacemakers have desperately tried in vain for several years to unite the most divided country in the world.

But then some guy puts a ball in a net, and suddenly this nation becomes united.

And that, my friends, epitomises the power of sport; and makes that moment, for all which followed, one of the most definitive moments in World Football.