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Iraq’s Grecian heroes: The Birth of the Lions of Mesopotamia

IT almost never happened, Iraq reaching the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Just two months after the end of the 2003 Iraq War, the world governing body FIFA were ready to forfeit Iraq’s place at the Games with officials unable to contact Iraqi football officials in battle-scarred Baghdad. Iraq’s qualifier with Vietnam had been postponed and their place was perilously in the balance. Eventually contact was established and Iraq’s participation in the qualifying competition would persist and it was a rollercoaster ride from then on.
It was a team without a home.

The Al-Shaab Stadium, Iraq’s national stadium, was cast-off by occupying US forces as a military base, its green pitch heavily cut-up – and it took a year before it became playable for the country’s domestic fixtures. Iraq’s Olympic players – unable to gain visas for a glamour tie at the Camp Nou against a Catalan national side organised by the persistence of hardworking German coach Bernd Stange, the trainer of the Iraqi national side – the U-23 players trained at the Al-Karkh stadium and played various friendly matches in the run-up to their first round qualifier against Vietnam in the city of Damascus where they won 3-1 thanks to two goals from Ahmed Manajid and one from Younis Mahmoud.

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Adnan Hamad, the man instructed to supervise the Under 23s by Saddam’s son Uday Saddam Hussein just before the war, directed the Iraqis into the next round after a 1-1 draw in Hanoi, and despite losing the first leg tie 2-0 to North Korea in Pyongyang, a momentous night in Amman saw the spirit of the Iraqi players reign through, with Qusai Munir making a name for himself by scoring the winner in a 4-1 victory over the Koreans. Both the Iraqi Olympic coach and Bernd Stange, the coach of the seniors, celebrated linking hands in front of ecstatic Iraqi crowd in the Jordanian capital.

In the final group stage, Iraq faced Gulf nations Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman, thrashing the Omanis in one of best post-war performances in a 4-0 victory, days after a large car bomb had rocked the Baghdad district of Kadhimiya. But then Iraq began to falter – Nashat Akram missed a penalty in a 1-0 defeat to Saudi Arabia, before momentarily recovering to beat Kuwait 2-1 in Amman. However their troubles on the road continued, losing 2-0 to Kuwait in the first game Iraq had played on Kuwaiti soil since the 1991 Gulf Cup and were then defeated by the same score-line in Muscat, leaving Iraq’s Olympic dream in tatters.

With a win needed in their final qualifier against Saudi Arabia in Amman and hoping the result between Oman and Kuwait went Iraq’s way, the coach Adnan Hamad took drastic action, dropping three of the team’s main players Nashat Akram, Emad Mohammed and Younis Mahmoud – the only foreign based players for the tie with rumours of a rift between the star players in the Iraqi camp. Basim Abbas captained the side against the Saudis and it was the team from the Kingdom of Saud who scored first, but it was the unlikely hero nondescript defender Haidar Abdul-Amir who headed the equaliser, exactly a year on from the day he played at the Al-Shaab against a group of US soldiers at the re-opening of the Iraqi stadium after the war.

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On the hour, midfielder Salih Sadir scored and a minute before the end, left winger Hawar Mulla Mohammed made the game safe with the third. But even after the final whistle, the Iraqi bench and players were left waiting on the pitch until the end of the other group game in Kuwait city between Kuwait and Oman and when the Iraqis heard the game had ended goalless, there were euphoric scenes on the pitch – players and even Iraqi FA officials danced, one of whom was Abdul-Khaliq Masoud – the potbellied FA president of the current Association in Baghdad and the overjoyed crowd in the stands where Nashat Akram was sitting with the fans as a spectator!

Iraq had qualified for the Olympic Games – which some world news outlets seemed as Iraq’s first ever qualification, forgetting the three in 1980, 1984 and 1988. Only 364 days prior, Adnan Hamad had called up the same group of players on the coalition-run radio station to report for the first training session after the war.

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That summer – the Iraqi FA elections cemented Hussein Saeed’s position as president of the post-war Football Association administration and sitting nearby at the election assembly was Adnan Hamad, who days later was named head coach of the senior side – with the Olympic team representing Iraq at the Asian Cup – using the continent’s top football tournament to prepare for the Olympics in Athens.

In China – with the inclusion of three over 23 players, libero Haidar Jabar, team captain and midfielder Abdul-Wahab Abu Al-Hail and Razzaq Farhan, Iraq reached the knock-out stages after beating Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan despite losing 1-0 to Uzbekistan in their opening match.

In Beijing, in the quarters, Iraq were truly humbled by the hosts China in a 3-0 defeat compounded by the sending-off of goalkeeper Ahmed Ali Jabur – which saw Nashat Akram go in goal for China’s penalty – which he failed to save. Ahmed had not only lost but his head-butt on Sun Jihai had cost him a place at the Olympics – and in his came Nour Sabri.

The popular goalkeeper – who had been substituted during the half-time of Iraq’s Olympic qualifying game in Muscat against Oman – a game Iraq lost, after he heard of a bombing near his home where his wife and new born daughter were staying, unable to concentrate, Nour Sabri came off. This was a second chance for the keeper and in the first game at the Olympics, only hours before their jerseys had been couriered to the team delegation in Greece, the keeper stood with the rest of the Iraqi players for the national anthems.

Across them was the Portuguese team, one of the pre-tournament favourites who had Manchester United’s wonder kid Cristiano Ronaldo in their side. Iraq, not expected to win, took the game to Portugal and despite conceding an own goal after just 13 minutes, fought bravely with goals from Emad Mohammed and Hawar Mulla Mohammed seeing them take a 2-1 lead.

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On the stroke of half-time, Jose Boswinga equalised from an effort from outside the box but just before the hour mark, Younis Mahmoud – with plaster just over his eye where he had received a whack to the face from Ronaldo – scored for Iraq to take the lead for a second time and in stoppage time substitute Salih Sadir made the points secure. 4-2 to Iraq and Cristiano Ronaldo, as he had been at the final of the European Championship was left in tears.

Iraq continued with momentum in Group D and beat Costa Rica 2-0 to qualify for the next stage with a game to spare – allowing Adnan Hamad to name a second string side in their final group game against Morocco, which they lost 2-1. The very day the Iraqi team was bestowed the name of ‘Lions of Mesopotamia’ when an Arab commentator introduced the encounter of Morocco and Iraq as the Atlas Lions versus the Lions of Mesopotamia!

From Patras, the Iraqi Olympic side travelled to Heraklion to play Australia in the quarter-finals, and a close game was won by an overhead kick from Emad Mohammed leaving the tonsils of Al-Iraqiya commentator Vian Faiq sore after his loud and passionate screams tinged with tears of shear emotions could be heard back in Baghdad!

The result had everyone believing that Iraq could win the tournament even the US president George W. Bush – who declared he would attend the final if Iraq made it! This seemed to have strike a nerve with the Iraqi team and several players came out in the world’s press and expressed their opposition to the US president and one remarked how such a man could face God after what he had done to so many people.

But the competition went on, with Paraguay the next opponents in the semis. The South Americans had like Iraq prepared for the Olympics by sending their U-23s to the Copa America in Peru, where they topped a group featuring Brazil and Chile before losing to Uruguay in the quarterfinals.

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However from kick-off things did not go as Adnan Hamad had planned, and his team found themselves 2-0 down after 34 minutes. Changes in the second half saw little effect with the Paraguayans adding a third with more than quarter of an hour of the game left. Razzaq Farhan managed to grab a late consolation but Iraq’s dream had ended in Thessaloniki – players laid on the pitch, some with tears others knowing that their chance had gone.

Iraq had a bronze to play for in the third and fourth place play-off game against a talented Italian side featuring a very young looking Andrea Pirlo but it was Italian striker Alberto Gilardino who grabbed the only goal of the game.

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Adnan Hamad’s boys had run their hearts out at the Olympics, in their Herculean efforts, bravely accomplishing the heights no one had expected them to reach, gathered after the war much like a defeated army, no stadium, no functioning league with some of the players not having played any competitive football for almost three months, leaving the Iraqi capital in an Australian military plane in army gear, some of the players travel-sick, and even when they reached Greece, only hours before their opening game, the team’s shirts had not arrived. This was the birth of the Lions of Mesopotamia, to do the impossible when all things seemed lost.

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