x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Iraq's footballers are unifying a nation

They may have lost but the Under 19 players hold promise of joy for the troubled country, writes Ali Khaled.

The Iraq youth side tripped in their attempt past South Korea to grab some silverware.
The Iraq youth side tripped in their attempt past South Korea to grab some silverware.

In the centre circle they lined up on their knees, as if in prayer. A little over 45 minutes earlier, the young Iraqi players had been a few seconds away from claiming their sixth Asian Under 19 Championship at Emirates Club Stadium in Ras Al Khaimah, only to concede an equaliser in the second minute of stoppage time.

And yet here they were now, somehow, one successful South Korean penalty away from defeat.

When it went in, they, to a man, collapsed to the turf in despair.

Few countries in the Middle East have the football pedigree that Iraq has. And few people in the Middle East love their football as much as the Iraqis.

Yesterday, Iraqi flags dotted all three sides of the stadium, which although not at full 3,000 capacity, continued to see fans trickling in throughout the first half.

At the end, the dejection of the players was more than shared among the fans who had come from Ras Al Khaimah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

There were many tears. And a little anger that the game that Iraq had controlled for long periods had been thrown away. But mostly their was pride in the young Lions of Mesopotamia. And not once throughout the 120 minutes did the level of support drop.

"We have been through so much in recent years, this defeat will not stop us," a tearful fan said at the end. "We always come back."

Indeed, Iraqi football, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, continues to thrive.

Iraq may have failed to add to their long list of titles yesterday, but qualification for the Fifa Under 20 World Cup, taking place in Turkey next June, was secured.

The last two decades have been hard on Iraqi football, as they have been on every aspect of life in the country. But football continues to be a uniting force.

In 2000, Iraq triumphed at this same tournament in Iran, beating Japan 2-1 in the final. Within three years, war would once again rear its ugly head, and football became the side note in an unspeakably brutal time for the country.

But then in 2007, came the magic of Jakarta. On July 29, as their country was being torn apart by sectarian insurgency, Iraq's football team, made up of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, astonishingly won the Asian Cup by defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final.

The country's footballers succeeded in doing something that continues to elude its politicians to this day. That is, unite the nation.

The team were worthy successors to the legendary Iraqi sides of the 1970s and 80s, who won three Gulf Cup of Nations, four Arab Nations Cups and the 1982 Asian Games. It says much about the Iraqi fans' knowledge of the game, not to mention expectations, that some say even that team of heroes from 2007 underachieved by not reaching the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

That could soon be rectified if the senior side qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

On Wednesday, as the U19s secured their place in the final, the seniors breathed life into their qualifying campaign with 1-0 home win over Jordan.

Should they qualify, do not be surprised a few of last night's heroes are on that plane to Brazil. Goalscorer Mohanad Abdulraheem was voted player of the tournament, while goalkeeper and captain Mohammed Hameed led his country by example, conceding only three goals throughout the tournament and ensuring Iraq were unbeaten until that penalty shoot-out. Both look set to make the step up.

As the fans streamed out of the stadium yesterday, defiance, as you would expect, was still in the air. "We'll see you next year," one fan said.

Whether he meant in Turkey in June, or UAE in October when the Emirates host the Under 17 World Cup, you can be sure of one thing; the Iraqi team, and its fans, will not let their country down.


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