‘Lions of Mesopotamia’ uniting a war-torn Iraq at the Asian Cup
The hospitals of Baghdad, especially those around the Shia-dominated Sadr City, received a continuous stream of patients with bullet wounds on Friday and not one of those shots was fired in anger or hatred.
According to reports, more than 1,000 people were wounded by the celebratory gunfire that followed Iraq’s unexpected victory over neighbours and arch-rivals Iran in the quarter-finals of the AFC Asian Cup in Australia.
The Sunni heartlands of Iraq surely would have witnessed a similar eruption of joy but, unfortunately for the football fans of those regions, militant group ISIL, who seized control of those lands last summer, have deemed football an “evil sport devised by the West to mislead the Muslim youth”.
Thirteen teenagers from the Al Yarmouk district of Mosul, who defied that ruling and dared to watch the live telecast of Iraq’s opening Asian Cup match, against Jordan, on January 12, were rounded up from their homes and executed publicly by a firing squad, according to an anti-ISIL activist group.
“The sport is clinically dead in the Sunni areas,” said Maher Hameed, a Jordan-based Iraqi journalist. “If you support the Iraqi team, you could face punishment from ISIL. It has become a sectarian issue – if you support the Iraqi team, you are accused of being a supporter of the Iraqi government and a team of Shias.”
ISIL’s view was not shared by those 13 murdered teenagers. For them, like the vast majority of Iraqis, football is a unifying force.
In a fractured nation, ravaged by war, insurgency, corruption, political instability and sectarianism, the “beautiful game” has always brought together the Sunnis and the Shias, the Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and never more than in 2007, when Iraq were the shock Asian Cup champions.
“Reminder: @IraqFA is not an Arab team,” Yousif Saeed, a player coordinator with the Iraqi Football Association, tweeted yesterday. “It’s Arab, Assyrian, Kurdish and Turkmen.
“Many players in the team don’t even speak Arabic. Osama Rashid, Ahmed Yasin, Salam Shaker – they are all not Arabs.”
Add to that list the United States-based Justin Meram. He is a Chaldean Catholic, born in Michigan, but playing for his parents’ nation.
Yasin, who scored Iraq’s equaliser in the second half against Iran, is a Kurd who has been living in Sweden since the age of three. The president of the Iraq Football Association, Abdul Khaliq Masood, also is a Kurd.
Dhurgham Ismail, who put Iraq in the lead from the penalty spot in the 116th minute, is a Shia from Maysan, while the captain, Younis Mahmoud, who struck the winner in the final of the 2007 Asian Cup, is a Sunni Turkman.
Mahmoud could be a microcosm of Iraq football. He has been without a club since leaving Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia before the end of last season and many critics had questioned coach Radhi Shenaishil’s decision to take the veteran to Australia, given his lack of activity. He had missed the Gulf Cup of Nations, two months ago, with an injury.
But put him on the international stage and he, invariably, delivers. As if to mock his critics, he played the full 120 minutes of the quarter-final against Iran and then made light of the pressure in the penalties by chipping a “panenka” past the Iran goalkeeper.
“I did it because I wanted to send a message to my players not to worry, look how easy it is to score,” Mahmoud said of the audacious penalty.
Not many of his teammates would have been worried, though, and not because they are the “Lions of Mesopotamia”. Growing up on the streets of their battered nation, they have been through worse and survived.
Bombings and attacks on stadiums and footballers have been a common occurrence over the past decade, but the local leagues have continued undeterred despite the challenges.
Many of the clubs struggle financially. Travelling for away matches is always fraught with risks, even though 11 of the 20 clubs in the top division this season are Baghdad-based.
“The league has gone on smoothly,” Hameed said. “There is good coordination between the Iraqi football association and the Ministry of Interior, who provide sufficient security at the stadiums.”
The bulk of Iraq’s team at the Asian Cup – 15 of the 23 players – play in the domestic league and, knowing the state of their nation, they are determined to bring some joy to the country.
“Since the invasion of Iraq, we have seen many sides trying to feed sectarian strife and divisions in our country,” Hameed said. “But adversity brings out the best in us and every victory always makes us forget the differences.”
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