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Mexico 86: Iraq’s World Cup campaign, where luck met fate (Part Three)

A new coach on the eve of the World Cup finals: Brazilian Evaristo

After the final World Cup warm-up matches in Baghdad had been played, the FA strangely decided to sack Edú as coach of Iraq and appoint fellow Brazilian Evaristo in his place after they had reached an agreement with the Qatari FA. It later emerged that Evaristo had secretly attended the match against the FAI League XI to watch the team as he sat up in the stands as a spectator. The sacking was one of the strangest decisions in the history of Iraqi football, coming just a month before the World Cup and only days after the team returned from a successful training camp in Brazil.


One of the excuses given by Uday for replacing Edú, was that Iraq needed ‘a trainer’ to oversee the players to get them up to a certain level for a more qualified coach to take over, like in the training of racehorses. Evaristo arrived in Baghdad, and in his first meeting with the players at the Baghdad University, he told them he had only a month to work with the team, and that they could not win the group or qualify for the second round, the only thing he could do was to stop them losing by more than one goal, and to build from there. His expectations for the World Cup were in complete contrast to Edú, who had set his sights on the team qualifying for the last 16. Just days into his job, he made two major decisions, dropping 35-year-old Falah Hassan and recalling “the big No.4 from the Gulf Cups” as he called him, the defender Nadhim Shaker, before the whole team flew to Mexico to acclimatise for the World Cup finals.


Falah Hassan was Iraq’s Johann Cruyff although he was nicknamed Seeler after the German Uwe Seeler for the obvious reason that the Iraqi footballer and the West German World Cup winner had one thing in common, both were follicly challenged. At the age of 35, the footballer had lost none of the energy or enthusiasm on the field, and the roar of the crowd became louder whenever he got on the ball and looked to beat an opponent and attempt a shot on goal.  When the Iraqi fans heard Falah would play in the second game against Romania, the attendance for that game swelled by 5,000! A unique footballer, and like most of the country’s footballers, he came from the streets playing shaabiya football, however the fans saw him as one of their own. He was a player that brought the crowds to the stadiums and made football into an art form. A primary school graduate, Falah became one of the highest paid footballers in the domestic game and was regarded by the Baathist regime as a national treasure, with the Revolutionary Command Council, for the first time, sending a footballer to London for treatment after breaking his leg in a league game having surgery and rehabilitation in time to return for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The player stated 30 years after being dropped for the 1986 World Cup that it had not been the coach Evaristo who had dropped him but someone in charge. That someone who had made the decision was “of the opinion” that Falah Hassan would not travel to Brazil as he signified a strong impact on the Iraqi street and wanted to squash his name and stardom, that man was the President’s son Uday.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the star left Iraq to live in exile with some stating he had lost favour with the Iraqi regime and was one of the few men whose name was censured in the Iraqi media! His name was completely wiped away from Iraq’s sports media and during his former club Al-Zawraa’s anniversary, to commemorate their founding, his name was never mentioned. In one of the issues of Iraq’s daily sports newspaper Baathi Al-Riyadhi showing Iraq’s leading scorers from the start of season 1974-75. Falah’s name was nowhere to be seen, despite being leading scorer with 11 goals in season 1978-79! Where Falah’s name should have been was just a blank space.



Another player who was dropped, but with much less publicity, was the 20-year-old Jafar Abdul-Hussein, who had impressed the Brazilian coach Edú to make his one and only appearance for Iraq in the second game against Denmark. Edú had spotted the midfielder from Saddam City and surprisingly named him in the national squad. Jafar came on in the last five minutes in the 2-0 victory over the Danes. However as fast as he had risen from total obscurity, his fall from grace came even faster, as pressure from political officials meant he was omitted from the national side not long after the game, after three of his brothers and two other members of his family had been executed by the Baathist regime for their political opposition to the ruling government and the youngster’s family were blacklisted by the regime.

The Iraqi delegation left Baghdad destined for Mexico and two days later landed at Mexico City International Airport via Bonn, on the team’s arrival with the heightened security around the Iraqi team, as the country was involved in a war with Iran, however Evaristo remarked on reaching Mexico ”We’re not afraid of terrorists or our opponents, but we are afraid of earthquakes.” commenting on the earthquake that had rocked Mexico only seven months prior.


The World Cup kicked off between reigning champions Italy and Bulgaria at the Azteca Stadium, with Iraq’s first match against Paraguay played four days later.  Iraq were one of three Arab representatives at the World Cup, the other being Algeria and Morocco. They kicked off on June 2 with Algeria drawing 1-1 with Northern Ireland and Morocco playing out a 0-0 stalemate with Poland.  It was Iraq’s turn next, and with Iraq being the holders of the Arab Cup and Pan Arab Games, much was expected back home in Iraq and the Arab world against Paraguay. After the saga over the injury to Adnan Dirjal, a player the Iraqi coaching staff had expected to be fit, Evaristo had hastily called Basim Qasim from Baghdad to join up with the team before FIFA’s deadline to name the final squad. The Al-Shurta defender/midfielder was selected ahead of the unlucky centre back Kadhim Mutashar (who had played in every World Cup qualifying game but dropped on the eve of the competition!) to make a dream trip to Toluca to play in the world’s biggest football tournament. With the tough-tackling Iraqi No.2 out, Evaristo rearranged his defence for the last training sessions playing Basil Gorgis in defence, and focused on playing the offside trap, telling the press “Anyone who wants to win any game in this country should play efficiently.”


Iraq’s opponents Paraguay had been in turmoil after qualifying for their third World Cup, the first for 28 years, after their coach Cayetano Ré Ramirez had threatened to leave the job. He was persuaded to stay and were unbeaten in 12 matches from October 11, 1985 up until the World Cup in Mexico and had been playing friendlies in the Middle East, against similar footballing nations to Iraq to prepare for the World Cup clash, beating Bahrain (2-1), drawing 0-0 with Saudi Arabia and played two matches with Qatar, drawing 1-1 in the first game and winning 3-0 in the second.


The match was played at La Bombonera (“The Chocolate Box”) which had no athletic track around the pitch, something that the Iraqi players had not been familiar with when playing for the national side, with the fans only a touching distance from the field. The match kicked off at 12:00am local time with the Iraqi players stepping onto the pitch in an unfamiliar all-golden-yellow strip. For years, the Iraqi national team had been known to wear to green or white, and sometimes in the past worn red but never yellow. It was said that the Iraq FA formally requested to the team’s German sports manufacturer Adidas to find jerseys that were distinct from any other country at the finals, and yellow and sky-blue were the colours chosen. However it may have been Uday’s demand to wear yellow, as his own club Al-Rasheed were also known to wear the same colour, purportedly Uday’s favourite colour. The change of colour irritated many of the players as they were wearing a strange coloured jersey from one of the best sports manufacturers at the World Cup, as worn by top nations like Germany but in a crude yellow. Years later, one player was quoted as saying “We felt alienated dressed in yellow and we considered the sky-blue as a heavy burden on us.”


The coach Evaristo, a man who achieved great success in Brazil and Qatar, pinned his team’s hopes on a good solid defence marshalled by centre backs Nadhim Shaker and Samir Shaker, with attacking full back Khalil Allawi on the right and Ghanim Oraibi on the left. In midfield, the coach had midfielders, Basil Gorgis and Natiq Hashim and two wingers, Haris Mohammed on the right and Ali Hussein Shihab on the left with the star duo, Hussein Saeed and a young 22-year-old Ahmed Radhi up-front to grab the goals. From the first minute, Iraq looked equal to the South Americans and even began to dominate the game. Hussein Saeed had the first shot at the keeper in the early moments, with a left-footed shot from the edge of the area, after Iraq had worked the ball well around the Paraguayan box. The Al-Talaba striker was mobile early on, making himself available to the wide men and running behind the defence. But despite playing the better football and having the best of the play, it was the Paraguayans who took the lead after Julio César Romero or “Romerito” as he was known in Brazil where he played his club football for Fluminense. He got the better of the Iraqi defence with a perfectly timed run with defender Nadhim Shaker keeping him on-side but the defender failed to get to grips of Romerito as he stuck his right leg out to connect to midfielder Adolfino Cañete’s long chipped ball from the edge of the centre circle and managed to lob the ball over the head of the on-rushing Iraqi captain Raad Hammoudi. The player had vowed to the Paraguayan fans before the game to score against Iraq, as he celebrated the goal with his team-mates and the substitutes on the bench.





In the last minute of the first half, Iraq had a free-kick on the edge of the Paraguay penalty box, defender Wladimiro Schettina was booked by the referee for not lining up the wall 10 yards from the ball. With the memories of that historic day in Taif fresh in his mind, Khalil Allawi stepped up to take it, however this time the keeper Roberto Fernández Bonillo was at hand to push the ball out. The referee pointed to a corner kick. Ali Hussein Shihab took the resulting kick from the left wing, and crossed the ball to the far post and onto the head of Ahmed Radhi who headed past the stranded keeper and into the goal, commentator Shidrak Yousef screamed ‘goal, goal’ as the Iraqi players celebrated with Iraq’s No.8. But Edwin Pikon-Ackong from Mauritius had already blown for half-time a split second before the ball had crossed the line, and the goal did not stand to the astonishment of the Iraqi players and coaching staff leaving the goalscorer to bury his head in his hands. The whole coaching staff including fitness coach Carlos Alberto Lancetta, team doctor José Luiz Runco and the coach Evaristo came onto the pitch to remonstrate over the referee’s decision.


Iraq lost their first World Cup game in Toluca even with most of the 24,000 fans supporting the Iraqis and chanting “Irak, Irak” almost throughout the game. At the post-match press conference, Evaristo was furious with the referee over Ahmed Radhi’s disallowed goal. “He was a bad referee. Not that he had bad intentions but did things that were bad for us like when he finished the first half when we were in a good position. He did not allow the goal because he had signalled the end of the first half… “The referee should have blown (the whistle) before the corner was taken or have let the goal stand as it came straight after the corner-kick. The referee decided the result but I think we deserved better.”


Hussein Saeed the player lauded by the world’s media as Iraq’s most dangerous player was out of the next game with Belgium with an injury which would also keep him out of the final group game against Mexico. In the second match against Belgium, Iraq had lost their experienced star forward so Ahmed Radhi led the front-line and in Hussein’s place, Evaristo decided to pick Karim Saddam ahead of Rahim Hamed, who had come on in the second half against Paraguay.


Iraq again started well with their quick passing game, however after 16 minutes the Europeans took the lead after a cross-field pass from Belgium captain and playmaker Jan Ceulemans found Anderlecht’s wonder kid Enzo Scifo free on the right edge of the penalty and he slotted past keeper Raad Hammoudi with a right-footed drive. Four minutes later right back Khalil Allawi was adjudged to have fouled Frank Vercauteren in the penalty box. Raad Hammoudi was booked for protesting the referee’s decision as forward Nico Claesen stepped to put his side 2-0 up. With the Iraqi players feeling hard done by the referee Palacio Jesus Diaz, his every decision resulted in the players crowding the Colombian, who went onto send off Basil Gorgis in the 51st minute.

The sending off had come after Belgium’s Nico Claesen had attempted to control a long ball, and was tackled by Basil Gorgis, team-mate Scifo got the ball and flicked it over the head of Basil Gorgis, however, the Iraqi No.14 tackled him down from behind, and the referee awarded a free kick. As the referee pointed to a Belgium free-kick, Ghanim Oraibi walked over Scifo as he lay on the ground and stamped on his right leg. In a case of mistaken identity the Colombian referee wrongly yellow carded Basil Gorgis for stamping on Scifo’s leg, however from the television replays, it was clear that his Al-Shabab team-mate Ghanim Oraibi was the culprit. The pair were both sporting ‘stylish’ 80s moustaches, which may have confused the referee on who actually committed the stamping offence. Basil pleaded his innocence but the referee instructed the free kick to be taken and the match to carry on, the player sarcastically applauded the referee for his decision. The Colombian was having none of it and showed the player a red card and pointed towards the sidelines to get off the field.





Six minutes later, Ahmed Radhi created a moment of history that will forever live in the memories of all Iraqis, the No.8 on the edge of his opponent’s penalty box, picked up a toe-poked pass from the centre of midfield and hammered the ball past the keeper. It was a pass from Natiq Hashim, nicknamed “the Iraqi Platini” for his resemblance on the ball to the Frenchman, though the lanky and elegant midfielder was never considered much of a playmaker. Natiq set up Ahmed Radhi for Iraq’s only goal at a World Cup finals. The towering No.15 chipped the ball with his toe to the Al-Rasheed striker on the right side of the penalty box from the centre of midfield. Ahmed stretched out his right boot to control the ball, and with the Belgium defender about to challenge him, he hammered the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of Jean-Marie Pfaff’s goal. The striker celebrated putting his right hand in the air, with his teammates running towards to him to celebrate.

Haris Mohammed had Iraq’s last chance in the 88th minute finding himself free on the right flank but hit the crossbar, had that chance gone in, it would have changed the whole complexion of Iraq’s World Cup. The match ended in defeat, and Iraq were out. The match had seen six bookings (five of them for Iraq) and one sending off as the Colombian referee tried to get a grip on the game. At the final whistle and having felt hard done by the referee, a few of the players went to the referee to remonstrate over several decisions that he had made during the 90 minutes. The Iraqi team had played “strongly” against the Belgians, according to their coach, but with Pikon-Ackong’s decision to rule out Ahmed Radhi’s goal by blowing his whistle early still fresh in their memories, were over-zealous with their criticisms of the referee. A day later, two Iraqi players were suspended by FIFA for two matches for unsportsmanlike conduct after insulting the referee, while another Iraqi player was suspended from all FIFA internationals until further notice after he spat at the referee and was later suspended from international football for a year for the incident, a World Cup record!

Evaristo held two intensive training sessions in preparation for the last match against Mexico played in front of a packed crowd at the 100,000 capacity Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Under-strength with three players suspended and four players injured including the first team keeper and the main striker missing for the final game, led Evaristo to ask the rest of the players “who wants to play” days before the game as he had only 15 players available to him. Defender Maad Ibrahim came into the side at the heart of the defence along with striker Anad Abid however the surprise inclusion was Basim Qasim, a defender by trade, however Evaristo decided in a change of formation from Iraq’s usual 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and play him in a holding midfield role as he had done in the second leg of the World Cup qualifier against the UAE.


With a weakened side, Iraq faced the hosts Mexico, themselves missing suspended acrobatic forward Hugo Sanchez. In front of over 100,000 at the Estadio Azteca, the Iraqis were not over-roared. The players heard the roar of the crowd, as they prepared to enter the field, and remarked after the game that the Mexican team weren’t frightening opposition but the Mexican fans were truly terrifying. Iraq could have claimed a draw, as they matched the Mexicans in every part of the pitch, with Maad Ibrahim and Nadhim Shaker keeping the Iraqi defensive line solid at the back, however at the other end the Iraqi attack failed to find the target.


It was the home side who scored through right full back Fernando Quirarte on 54th minutes. The goal had come from a free kick conceded by Basim Qasim after a rash challenge on midfielder Carlos De Los Cobos, the Iraqi player put up his hands to admit his guilt to the referee. Manuel Negrete lofted the ball into the Iraqi penalty box, floating it onto the right side of the box, an Iraqi and Mexican player jumped for the ball but it landed at the feet of Fernando Quirarte free on the right wing as he sneaked behind the Iraqi defence. Taking a touch to control the ball, the player had options to cut the ball back into the six-yard box, but decided to shot and beat Fatah Nasayif at his near post to score. Commentator Muayad Al-Badry lambasted the goalkeeper “That should not have happened, God it should not have happened, a dead angle, why this way, why Fatah”, he painfully cried.


The team returned back to Baghdad, with no fan-fare at Saddam International Airport in Baghdad, dejected from their World Cup experience but having gained from playing on the world’s greatest stage. The players did not receive any punishment from Uday on their return from the World Cup, however the entire squad was assembled at the Conference Palace, a building used for political conferences and cultural events and located in the heart of Baghdad for a special televised programme to investigate and determine the causes of the defeats in Mexico.

At a televised press conference at the Conference Palace in Baghdad, Iraqi FA president Uday, who had become the most powerful man in Iraqi football and sports in general after Nouri Faisal Shaher had been dismissed as Minister of Youth & Sport only days earlier, laid part of the blame on the team’s first round exit on the Brazilian coach. Uday dressed in the full Arab garb and headdress revealed his reaction to the World Cup exit and stated he was surprised that the team had not qualified for the knockout stages despite the first, second and third team in the group qualifying for the last 16. He claimed that fatal tactical errors, clear in the performances of the players in the three matches, were blamed on the Brazilian coach. His final words were addressed to the whole squad and Uday concluded that the FA had decided unanimously to end the contracts of the Brazilians coaches after they had failed to fulfil the aims of the FA.

The press conference signalled Uday’s accession to the top of the Iraqi sports and football hierarchy, after the Minister of Youth, the main lawmaker in Iraqi sports had stepped down. Uday had launched a campaign against Nouri Faisal Shaher through the media with daily columns and articles and even documents of the Minister’s alleged corruption in the ministry. Shaher was feeling the pressure and in the end was dismissed from his job only days before the Iraqi team returned from Mexico. No reason was given but everyone knew that the team’s poor results in Mexico were blamed firmly on the head of Shaher. The Iraqi press led by Uday, implicated the minister for the ‘massacre’ of coaches Jorge Vieira and Edú at short notice in the run-up to the World Cup, even though Uday had been the main instigator in the sackings!

Before Uday’s customary thawab and akab (rewards and punishment) method utilized at his own club Al-Rasheed were applied to the national side, the players of the 1986 World Cup squad were neither tortured nor imprisoned for their three defeats in Mexico, that form of punishment would come in the later years in the early 90s until the overthrow of the Baathist regime and so a few weeks after playing at a World Cup for the first time, the same players were gathered to play for Iraq – in more familiar green – under the semblance of the Baghdad Select eleven in the Saddam International Tournament!

Mexico 86: Iraq’s World Cup campaign, where luck met fate (Part One)

Mexico 86: Iraq’s World Cup campaign, where luck met fate (Part Two)

Mexico 86: Iraq’s World Cup campaign, where luck met fate (Part Three)