x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How Iraq became football's No 5

Players' fear helped Asian giants become one of the world's most successful nations.

Iraq's Khali Allawe, left, and Paraguay's Rogelio Delgado battle for the ball during the 1986 World Cup. Iraq lost their three first-round matches, but none by more than a single goal.
Iraq's Khali Allawe, left, and Paraguay's Rogelio Delgado battle for the ball during the 1986 World Cup. Iraq lost their three first-round matches, but none by more than a single goal.

Players' fear helped Asian giants become one of the world's most successful nations. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski explain In 1970, when Brazil won their third World Cup, they got to keep the Jules Rimet trophy. The little statuette of Nike, then still known as the Greek goddess of victory, ended up in a glass case in the Brazilian federation's offices in Rio de Janeiro. One night in 1983 the trophy was stolen, and was never seen again.

However, the point is that everyone agrees that Brazil deserve the Jules Rimet. The fivefold world champions are undoubtedly the best country in football history. Our question here is a different one: which country is best taking into account its population, experience, and income per capita? If Brazil are the absolute world champions, who are the relative ones, the biggest overperformers? That overachieving country deserves its own version of the Jules Rimet trophy - call it the Tom Thumb. And which countries are the worst underachievers relative to their resources? Along the way we will have to consider several impressive candidates and make some judgement calls before coming up with our winner and loser.

First of all, if we are dealing with statistics, we have to construct our arguments on the basis of large numbers of games played. There have only been 18 World Cups, and most of these involved hardly any countries from outside Europe and Latin America. So crunching the numbers from World Cups might at best tell us something about the pecking- order among the long-established large football nations. But when the difference between, say, Argentina's two victories and England's one comes down to as little as the hand of God, or the difference between Italy's four and France's one to a pre-match pep talk given by Benito Mussolini to the referee in 1934 and a comment by Marco Materazzi about Zidane's parentage in 2006, the statistician needs to look elsewhere.

Happily, since national teams play a lot of games, we have plenty of data. We will rely on the remarkable database of 22,130 matches accumulated by the maths professor Russell Gerrard. The number of international matches has soared over time. Between the foundation of Fifa in 1904 and the First World War the number rose quickly to 50 per year. After 1918, growth resumed. By the eve of the Second World War, there were more than 100 international matches a year. But this was still a world dominated by colonial powers, and only with the independence movement after the war did international competition mushroom.

In 1947 there were 107 international matches; by 1957 there were 203; by 1967, 308. Few new countries were founded in the next two decades, but the number of international matches continued to rise thanks to the jet plane, which made travel less of a pain and more financially worthwhile. In 1977 there were 368 international matches; in 1987 there were 393. At that point the world seemed to have reached some sort of stable equilibrium.

But then the Soviet Union broke up into 15 separate states, and Yugoslavia collapsed. The new countries flocked into Fifa. At the same time the commercial development of football meant that cash-hungry national associations were keen to play lucrative friendlies. In 1997 there were 850 international games, more than double the figure of a decade before. If we concentrate on just the last 20 years or so of Russell's database - from 1980 to 2001 - a list of the most successful teams features the usual suspects. Let's rank the top-10 countries by the percentage of games won, or, given that around one third of matches are draws, by the "win percentage" statistic calculated by valuing a draw as worth half a win.

The top four is exactly as you would expect. Even in a 21-year period when Brazil won just one World Cup and tried to reinvent their national style of football, their "win percentage" was almost 75 per cent. That equates to odds of 1/3, or about as close as you can get to a sure thing in a two-horse race. Strangely, the old West Germany appear only near the bottom of the top 10, alongside England with a "win percentage" of around 65 per cent. Moreover, England's average goal difference was actually slightly higher than West Germany's. It's just that West Germany had a knack of winning the matches that counted.

Only in fifth place do we find our first big surprise: Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They were the only country other than Brazil in this period to win their matches by an average of more than a goal a game. Of course, the Iraqis' presence illustrates the problem of ranking national teams absent a league format. It is hard to imagine that they would have done all that well against the other teams in the top 10. In fact they did not meet any of them in full internationals during this period (Saddam's boys didn't get many invitations to friendlies at Wembley). Mostly, Iraq beat Middle Eastern and other Asian countries.

Yet whatever their route to the top 10, getting there was some achievement. The years from 1980 to 2001 - wars, massacres, sanctions, Saddam - were not happy ones for Iraq. Nonetheless, the country produced a "golden generation" of footballers. It did so under the thumb of the ruling family, which loved sports. Each April, Baghdad celebrated Saddam's birthday by hosting the "Saddam Olympics". You may not have caught these on Sky TV, but as late as 2002, with Baghdad's Russian-Iraqi Friendship Society as sponsors, they attracted athletes from 72 countries. And not many people know that Baghdad was also bidding to host the real Olympics in 2012 before events intervened.

Saddam left control of the football team to his bestial son Uday. A playboy and pervert, paralysed from the waist down in an assassination attempt, Uday motivated his players by threatening to amputate their legs if they lost. One former international reported being beaten on the soles of his feet, dragged on his bare back through gravel, and then dipped in raw sewage so that his wounds would be infected.

Some players spent time in Abu Ghraib prison. After Kuwait came to Baghdad in 1981 and won, one of the ruling family's helpers beat up the referee, who was then "driven hurriedly to the airport and put bleeding on a plane out of the country", writes Declan Hill in his book on global match fixing, The Fix. Stories like these from Iraqi defectors prompted Fifa to send a committee to Iraq to investigate. The Iraqis produced players and coaches who swore blind that it was all lies.

Fifa believed them, and so the Lions of Mesopotamia were allowed to keep on collecting prizes. Only when American troops entered Baghdad in 2003 did they find the prison Uday maintained in the basement of Iraq's Olympic headquarters. It featured "a rack and a medieval torture device used to rip open a man's anus," writes James Montague in his When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone. But despite everything, under Saddam the Lions of Mesopotamia were the strongest team in the world's largest continent. Though they had to play on neutral ground for much of Saddam's reign due to the war with Iran, they qualified for the World Cup of 1986 and for three Olympics. They won the 1982 Asian Games, four Arab Nations Cups, three Gulf Cups of Nations, and the 1985 Pan Arab Games despite fielding a B team.

As their fans used to chant (often while firing bullets into the air): "Here we are Sunni - yah! Here we are Shiite - yah! Bring us happiness, sons of Iraq!" Even Kurds supported the Lions. Montague calls the team "arguably the last symbol of national unity left in Iraq". Only in the 1990s, as Saddam's regime became even more isolated and brutal, did Iraqi football decline. Also in our top 10 of most successful football countries, the new Czech and Serbian Republics inherited proud footballing traditions. Even so, their performances are remarkable: each country has only about 10 million inhabitants, compared to the 40-80 million of the large European nations and Brazil's 178 million.

Some readers may be surprised to see Spain and England complete the top 10, given that both countries are often described as "notorious underachievers" - meaning that they don't win as many championships as the very best teams. One thing the table tells us is that Europeans dominate world football. The continent has eight countries in the top 10. The most obvious explanation for that is tradition: European nations are generally older and have played international football for longer than the rest of the world. It may also help that control of global football has largely remained in Europe. Fifa make the rules of the game from a posh suburb of Zurich, and although western Europe has only six per cent of the world's population, it has hosted 10 out of 18 World Cups.

But tradition does not in itself secure dominance. If it did, then British companies would still dominate industries like textiles, shipbuilding and carmaking. Dominance is transitory unless producers have the resources to stay ahead of the competition. The key resource in football is talent. Generally speaking the more populous countries are more likely to have the largest supply of talented people.

We have also seen that rich countries are best at finding, training and developing talent. In short, it takes experience, population and wealth to make a successful football nation. This article is an abridged version of chapter 15 from 'Why England Lose' by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. The book is published by Harper Non-Fiction, priced £15.99 (Dh97). To buy a copy go to amazon.co.uk/books.