Iraqi team a beacon of hope and possibility
Fans in the Middle East have adopted the Asian champions as their own ahead of the Confederations Cup.
Even the most creative and talented screenwriter couldn't have written a script this compelling about the indomitable strength of the human spirit, the ability to overcome adversity in the most dire of circumstances, and the unifying power of sport.
It's a story tailor-made for Hollywood and the silver screen, but one that played out in real life on a lush, green soccer field in Jakarta
It was two years ago that the Iraqi national side — a team of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish players psychologically scarred by the daily chaos and ravages of the war raging back home — pulled off a major surprise when it upset powerhouse Saudi Arabia in the final of the Asian Cup in Indonesia.
Now, the Iraqis are attempting to shock the soccer world once more, this time in South Africa, when they compete at the FIFA Confederations Cup this month.
And not only can the reigning Asian champions count on the backing of supporters in Iraq, but also soccer fans all across the Middle East.
Middle East behind Iraq
"Anything [soccer] related here is massive news, and especially so for the Confederations Cup, and the main reason why is because the Iraqi national team has become the embodiment of the Middle East," James Montague, British journalist and author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, told CBCSports.ca over the phone from his Beirut office.
Considering what the Iraqi team has been through, it's easy to understand why.
For years, Iraq's national team was forced to play its home games in other nations while the country was at war with Iran in the 1980s.
During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the dictator's son, Uday Hussein, was in charge of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and also oversaw the national team. Uday Hussein used intimidation tactics and torture as a motivational tool and as a form of punishment — national team members were forced to play barefoot with a concrete ball after failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
Since 2003, the war in Iraq and subsequent hostilities forced the team to play its home games away from home.
Successes on the field were few and far between — a respectable fourth-place finish at the 2004 Athens Olympics juxtaposed against the team's failure to qualify for the World Cup since 1986 — but the fact that the Iraqi team continued to play and compete at a high level in the face of such terror was a testament to character.
Their improbable victory against Saudi Arabia brought a brief moment of joy and revelry to the citizens of war-torn Iraq, while at the same time earning the respect and admiration of fans throughout the Middle East.
Shia, Sunni and Kurds come together
"Obviously the story is incredibly romantic about how a team of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish players all came together. It was a very proud nationalistic statement, but people from all over the Middle East got behind them because they were homeless," Montague explained.
"They could not play any matches or even train for a long while in Baghdad, so they lived this sort of nomadic existence where they would play matches and train in Oman, Jordan and Syria, and Dubai.
"And so there is this real sense that they represent the Middle East."
The Iraqis' victory in 2007 was all the more amazing when you consider that death, war, and attempts on their lives were are all things that they dealt with on a daily basis.
"A lot of the players were under threat of kidnap or assassination," explained Montague. "On the one hand, you had players who played abroad in Qatar, so they were worth money to their families, and they became targets of criminals and extortion.
"Terrorist groups would also target players because their victory was a nationalistic symbol; it was a unifying force, which both al-Qaeda and more separatist Shia elements and Kurdish elements were against."
Having already been eliminated from qualifying contention for the 2010 World Cup, Iraq is turning its focus to the Confederations Cup, and the belief is that the Asian champions can beat out hosts South Africa and New Zealand for second place behind Spain in Group A, thus booking a spot in the tournament semifinals.
Cause for celebration
If that does happen, expect to see all-night parties in Baghdad with Iraqis taking to the streets in joyous celebration like they did two years ago.
"Because they're in a weak group, Iraq has the potential for a semifinal match against Brazil or Italy, and if that takes places, that will be the biggest event in the Middle East since the second Iraqi war. The entire region will grind to a halt and Baghdad will be gridlock," Montague said.
And what'll happen if Iraq somehow manages to win the Confederations Cup? Montague believes it could go one step beyond the Asian Cup victory of 2007 and have a lasting effect on the country in terms of national unity.
"I truly believe when Iraq won the Asian Cup it was an incredibly cathartic experience for an entire nation that came together," opined Montague. "It was a very important moment for the country because it made people realized there is a benefit of having a unified Iraq, rather that having it portioned out into three separate countries."