In the year 1986, the players of Iraq, in the midst of a bloody and costly eight-year war with neighbouring Iran stepped onto the pitch at the Estadio Bombonera in the Mexican city of Toluca to make their bow at the World Cup. For the team and its players, it concluded a life changing adventure, where they had travelled the globe, snatching victories from the jaws of defeat with last-gasp stabbing goals and qualifying for a World Cup without hosting a single match on home soil even playing one ‘home’ qualifier in Calcutta, India!
Iraq’s World Cup campaign did not start in the capital of Baghdad nor at any other city in the Land of Two Rivers but some 10,000 kilometres away in Maryland in the United States. The date was August 3, 1984 and the event was the final group game at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics at the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. The opposition were Yugoslavia and at half-time, with Iraq needing a win, the score was 2-0 to Ammo Baba’s team. Everything and anything that could have gone right, had done, but then in a twist, the opposition’s methodical coach Ivan Topple made a masterstroke – switching the two wide-men and bringing on Mehmed Bazadarevic and Jovica Nikolic – as a result, Iraq’s defence collapsed, and were put to the sword by a blistering second-half hat-trick from hero Stjepan Deveric, from 2-0 up – Iraq needing victory and for other results in the group to go their way, lost 4-2 and disappointingly exited the Olympics at the group stage.
On the team’s return to Baghdad, the head coach, Ammo Baba, the revered ex-Iraq captain and once star forward of the national side in the Fifties and Sixties, was sacked after three years in charge and the Youth Minister, chairing Iraq’s sports organisations, reprimanded what he saw was the team’s pathetic second half display at the Olympics and so severe were the ramifications of the defeat to the Yugoslavs and the team’s inability to reach the knock-out stages, that the Minister decreed that the team would withdraw from the Asian Cup qualifiers.
Far from Mexico
The Iraqi team was in disarray, without a coach and suffering from a lack of confidence, the Ministry of Youth named two coaches to invigorate the players and rekindle a World Cup dream that felt a million miles away from ever being achieved, Akram Salman as head coach and Anwar Jassam, working alongside him as his assistant. Three months later the team and the posture of the players in training had changed. The two men had made several changes to the squad, witnessing the return of striker Ahmed Radhi after his temperamental clash with Ammo Baba over the coach’s overloaded training regime had seen him dropped for the Olympics.
At the problematic left back position – where Olympic defender Hussam Naama had been blamed for the second half capitulation to Yugoslavia, the new coach Akram Salman recalled Jamal Ali, the youngest player to have captained Iraq at 21 in 1977. The defender knew the coach well as he had played under him at his club Al-Talaba. There was another recall for Al-Shabab’s Basil Gorgis, a combative ball-winning midfielder, dropped by Ammo Baba for the Olympics in Los Angeles. They would all play their part in the long and tiring World Cup voyage to Mexico.
The players backed by the dual training team breathed new life into the team, and the squad set-off from Baghdad with wide smiles and in their first venture abroad, things were looking up, when Iraq lifted the Merlion Cup in Singapore. The Iraqis beat the youth teams of South American countries Argentina – featuring Gerardo “Tata” Martino and Pedro Monzón who became the first player to be sent off in a World Cup final in 1990 and Chile and Australia on penalties on the way to the final where goals from Hussein Saeed and Wamidh Munir were enough for Iraq to beat South Korea’s U23s 2-1 at the National Stadium. Iraq played warm-up games in Baghdad against England’s Nottingham Forest and Scotland’s Rangers, who they beat 2-0 and 4-2 respectfully in front of over 30,000 spectators at the Al-Shaab.
Saddam son’s football team
The administrative veneer of football in Iraq was about to see a seismic shift when only a few months earlier a new club by the name of Al-Rasheed had been promoted to the Iraqi top flight. In late 1984, the club signed some of the best players in the country, centre back Adnan Dirjal, the Allawi brothers Karim and Khalil, playmaker Shaker Mahmoud, defender Kadhim Mutashar and the up and coming striker Ahmed Radhi, a player that at the time was predicted to take over the mantle of Iraq’s top goalscorer Hussein Saeed.
That season Al-Rasheed Sports Club would go on to challenge the status quo at the top of the Iraqi league table with Al-Talaba, Al-Tayaran, Al-Zawraa, Al-Shurta and Al-Jaish. And despite the Iraq Football Association suspending the league just past the half-way stage of the season, Al-Rasheed held an 8-point lead on rivals Al-Jaish with 28 points from 15 matches.
The new club had been founded a year earlier in the affluent Baghdad district of Mansour by the son and son in law of the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The eldest son of the Iraqi leader Uday Saddam Hussein was named vice president, but he had grander ambitions and when the team were promoted, he began to signal to the club’s board to sign the best players in the country, and just as Iraq progressed through the World Cup qualifying stages, Uday was climbing the Iraqi footballing presidential ladder, first being named club president at Al-Rasheed and then the FA president, where he was the only person who stood, after his nearest rival decided it would be best to drop out than to face the President’s son in an impending election and then becoming the president of the Olympic Committee. Uday then set his eyes on removing the man holding the top sports job in the country, the Minister of Youth and he began a media campaign to overthrow the incumbent Minister and force him to step down, so he would be unrivalled at the top of Iraqi football.
The decision to halt the 1984-85 league came due to the lack of public interest in the Iraqi league, arising from Iraq’s World Cup campaign rapidly gathering pace and the Iraqi B team under assistant coach Anwar Jassam lifting both the Arab Cup and the Pan Arab Games over two months, the latter victory coming in front of over 50,000 home spectators in Rabat where an early header from Basil Gorgis would win the match and a gold medal for Iraq against a talented Moroccan team featuring goalkeeper Ezaki Badou and African Player of the Year Mohamed Timoumi.
Forced to play their home games away from the nation’s Al-Shaab stadium in Baghdad, Akram Salman’s men kicked off their World Cup journey in Kuwait City against a disjointed and infighting Lebanese national side whose novice Bulgarian coach found out much to his own displeasure that he was forced to conform to a club quota to appease the warring club factions, a microcosm of the Civil War that was tearing the nation apart. Lebanon were forced to wear the yellow kit of the hosts Al-Qadisiya Club – after match organisers felt their standard jersey clashed with Iraq’s white and green. In the second half and 3-0 down, the Lebanese side had a change of kit, but even in striking red shirts, Iraq proved to be too strong and finished outright winners with a 6-0 victory. Two days later, the scoreline was repeated and after shipping another fifteen goals in two defeats to Qatar, the Lebanese Football Association felt it better to withdraw from the World Cup qualifiers rather than face more humiliation.
Heavy Defeat in Doha
In the early Eighties football matches between an improving and well-drilled Qatari side – under the stewardship of Brazilian Evaristo – and Iraq were fiery affairs, the last encounter had ended in a mass brawl during an Olympic qualifying in Kuala Lumpur where Iraq’s team doctor attacked the Chinese referee with an advertising hoarding whilst one player from each team were thrown out of the tournament for fighting!
Iraq had lost that game 2-0 a few months after they had been defeated 2-1 by the Qataris for the first time in an international at the 1984 Gulf Cup in Muscat. The victory for Qatar set-up a play-off between the two teams for the cup, where Iraq won out on penalties. But the results indicated the strength of the Qataris Al-Annabi (the Maroons). This was a test for Akram Salman’s side and they failed miserably in Iraq’s heaviest World Cup defeat.
At the Grand Hamad Stadium in Doha, the locals came out in force, a sea of men in white thobes in a show of strength at their home stadia and on the pitch Iraq’s coaching duo of Akram Salman and Anwar Jassam, would be left bewildered by their counterpart Brazilian Dino Sani who had taken over from his compatriot Evaristo a few months prior. Iraq were torn apart by a rampant home team and defeated 3-0 and to add insult to injury, lost key player Hussein Saeed, to add to an increasing casualty list which already included the region’s best defender Adnan Dirjal.
Again the Minister of Youth got involved, meddling in team affairs he gathered the whole delegation for an emergency meeting, straight away changes were made in the starting line-up, out went goalkeeper Fatah Nasayif and in returned team captain and group leader Raad Hammoudi, one of the nation’s record cap holders. Iraq had beaten Jordan in each of their two ‘home’ and away ties in their group and with only one team qualifying from Iraq’s group, the final ‘home’ game with Qatar was the match that would decide which team of the two nations would qualify for the next round.
The Qatari FA wanting to gain an advantage demanded the World Cup qualifier be played in the Middle East but the Iraqis decided that it would best to play the match as far away from the region as they could, and decided on the Indian city of Calcutta officiated by a referee from a non-AFC member, England. The Iraqi team at 1-1 seemed to be up against it, as they needed to win to progress however in the face of adversity the Iraqi team was victorious thanks to a bicycle kick from Karim Allawi in the 76th minute. Only grainy footage of the acrobatic kick remains, but it is a moment that changed history for the Iraqi team, with the kick of Karim Allawi’s boot the team were in the next round. However, that was not before the habitual 22-man brawl erupted at the final whistle when Karim’s brother Khalil got into fisticuffs with Qatar’s Mohammed Daham and the fracas almost instigated a diplomatic incident after Qatar’s captain ripped an Iraqi flag. Bruised and enraged, the Iraqis went into the next stage, where they would meet the UAE in the second round in September.
First Iraqi coach of the campaign sacked and redemption for ex-coach Wathiq Naji
The Iraqi team went to South Korea to take part in the President’s Cup, buoyed by the return of the vital defensive cog Adnan Dirjal but they could only manage to finish in fourth place losing on penalties to Brazil’s Bangu. The Iraq FA then decided to name Akram Salman’s assistant Anwar Jassam as head coach of the Iraq B team, taking the second string to the Arab Cup in Saudi . There they won the title for a record third time, and then a month later followed that up with gold at the Pan Arab Games.
Iraqi football was on a high, and the national team returned to training with a camp in Saudi Arabia, to play warm-up matches in Jeddah and Riyadh against Saudi Arabia, a team Iraq’s B team had defeated twice in two months! But even though the game witnessed Raad Hammoudi, Adnan Dirjal and returning Hussein Saeed in the starting line-up together for the first time in over a year, Iraq lost 3-1 and in an evening game, a few days later, they were humbled 2-0 by the same opposition.
The delegation returned back to Baghdad for a dressing down from Uday Saddam Hussein, and just days later, head coach Akram Salman and his assistant Ahmed Subhi, only appointed after Anwar Jassam took charge of the B team, were relieved of their duties and with only a few days before their first leg against the United Arab Emirates, the veteran Wathiq Naji, a former First Lieutenant in the Iraqi Army, was named as an emergency replacement and given the sole mission of trying to get Iraq past the second round.
The UAE were a solid and well-organised outfit managed by Brazilian treinador Carlos Alberto Parreira. For Wathiq Naji the qualifier was personal, a grudge match, with the two head coaches having had history. Five years prior, an Iraqi team supervised by Wathiq Naji had met Kuwait, then managed by Carlos Alberto Parreira. They faced each other in an Olympic play-off final at a packed Al-Shaab in Baghdad, only the winner would qualify for the Olympic Games in Moscow. Iraq were flying and found themselves 2-0 up after 44 Minutes with a double from on-fire striker Nazar Ashraf. In the second half, the coach decided to withdraw the red-hot striker after an hour of play for a midfielder, thinking the game had more or less been won, but how wrong he was. Three minutes later, the Kuwaitis were awarded what Iraq saw as a controversial penalty, the referee George Joseph stuck to his decision and was later shot at by Saddam’s bodyguard Sabah Mirza narrowly missing the Malaysian after the FA official accused him of taking a bribe from the Kuwaitis. After an interrogation televised on State TV, the referee fled Baghdad after he was beaten and had money stolen from him! Iraq crumbled after Kuwait’s No.9 Jassim Yaqoub dispatched the kick from twelve yards and Iraq went on to lose the game 3-2. Wathiq Naji would never forget the heart churning feeling of that bitter defeat. His decision to substitute a striker for a midfielder, with his team 2-0 up, would haunt him until the day he died. This was his chance to make amends.
The first leg was held at Al-Wasl stadium in Dubai. The incoming coach made an instant change, starting the impressive left back and the goal scoring forward of the victorious Iraqi B team, the gifted ball-playing full-back Ghanim Oraibi and the man the Arab sports press labelled the Arab Eusebio, the 30 year-old Anad Abid whose six goals in eight games had won the Iraqi B both the Arab Cup and Pan Arab Games., He started alongside Hussein Saeed and Ahmed Radhi in a front three. The match at Zabeel Stadium saw the return of Adnan Dirjal in Iraq’s defence for his first game of the World Cup qualifiers however just five minutes into the first leg, UAE’s Fahad Khamis diverted the ball past Raad Hammoudi in Iraq’s goal with his head after Adnan Al-Talyani had headed across the box. Iraqi hands were put up to indicate an offside but the linesmen kept his flag down and the goal stood. A worried Wathiq Naji sat on the bench lit a cigarette as the sun began to set. Hussein Saeed came to the rescue when he latched onto Ahmed Radhi’s long-ball and beat the offside trap to lob the onrushing keeper to equalise after 29 minutes, as the two teams went on to the break at 1-1. But Iraq made the worst possible start when Fahad Khamis scored his second from the UAE’s first corner in the second half, after Iraq’s defence failed to clear the ball after UAE’s Abdullah Sultan had headed onto the crossbar, the tall UAE No.7 made sure by planting the ball into the top right-hand corner of the Iraqi keeper.
Knowing they needed to find another goal, the Iraqi coach made two changes throwing on Shaker Mahmoud and replacing a defender for an attacking midfielder Natiq Hashim, and Hussein Saeed came up with a second equaliser from a long free kick from Adnan Dirjal was headed down by Ahmed Radhi into the path of the prolific Iraqi striker and taking one touch to control the ball, coolly placed the ball past the UAE keeper.
Iraq were down to ten-men after the sending off to Anad Abid for a second bookable offence with fifteen minutes left to play, but substitute Natiq Hashim popped up with a priceless winner on 83 minutes to fully silence the local 30,000 white kandoura-wearing support.
The second leg was played at the King Fahd Sports City Stadium in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The match was attended by Iraq FA president Uday Saddam Hussein and the UAE president Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. Iraq after managing a famous victory, twice coming back from conceding to lead 3-2, made changes, switched back to a 4-4-2, with Anad Abid suspended and Ghanim Oraibi dropped, Karim Allawi played at right back, with Shaker Mahmoud and Basim Qasim in midfield.
Carlos Alberto Parreira’s Emirates side were known to score goals early in each half and netted after only one minute, once again it was Fahd Khamis. The Swiss referee André Daina had been told by FIFA to stamp out any dissent and rough-play and by half-time had already booked four players. Six minutes into the second half, the indomitable Adnan Al-Talyani looked to have crushed Iraq’s World Cup dream to make it 2-0 and 4-3 on aggregate.
After UAE defender Khalid Abdul-Aziz was sent off for a second yellow after kicking the ball away only three minutes after Al-Talyani’s goal, two goals to nil down, the Iraqi bench knew they had to go for it and sent on centre-forward Karim Saddam who some in Taif believed was the son of Saddam Hussein! It was Wathiq Naji’s last throw of the dice and with no substitutes left, the trainer could only sit and watch hopelessly as Iraq dominated but were unable to break the tight-UAE rear-guard.
The clock ticked away and even the UAE commentator believed Iraq had been defeated and described how the UAE fans would greet the victorious side on their return to the Emirates. But then, with less than a minute left, the ball dropped in the box, UAE defender Mohammed Faraj failed to clear it and sub Karim Saddam, with an opportunistic strike, stabbed at the ball and it just flew into the net, beating the keeper Abdul-Kadir Hassan. Then the referee blew the whistle, the whole UAE team dropped to their feet, the commentator who had been preparing to greet the players had his summary cut-short as the state television switched to equestrian coverage so fans at home would not see the scenes of the devastated UAE players lying down on the ground and in tears. The Iraqis could not believe it, a last-gasp goal, whether it was luck or fate, Iraq had got to the final round. After the match, UAE’s coach Carlos Alberto Parreira called the defeat “the saddest day” of his coaching career. It would be the last time Wathiq Naji would supervise the team and was left with the great memory of beating his arch-nemesis Carlos Alberto Parreira, putting to bed the heart-breaking 3-2 defeat by the Brazilian coach’s Kuwaiti team in 1980 in Baghdad.