It almost never happened, Iraq reaching the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Just two months after the end of the 2003 Iraq War, FIFA were ready to forfeit Iraq’s place at the Games, with world governing body 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, providing a rollercoaster ride from then on.
But 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 (U23s) – unable to gain visas for a glamour tie at the Camp Nou against a Catalan national side, a match organised Bernd Stange, the by German coach of the senior side – trained at the Al-Karkh stadium.
They also played various friendly matches in the run-up to their first round qualifier against Vietnam in Damascus, where they won 3-1 thanks to two goals from Ahmed Manajid and one from Younis Mahmoud.
Adnan Hamad, the man tasked with overseeing the U23s by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday just before the war, steered the Iraqis into the next round after a 1-1 draw in Hanoi. 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 supreme, with Qusai Munir making a name for himself by scoring the winner in a 4-1 victory over the Koreans. The Iraqi Olympic coach and Stange celebrated by 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. The Omanis were thrashed 4-0 in one of best post-war performances, 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 falling by the same score-line in Muscat.
Iraq’s Olympic dream looked to be in tatters.
With a win needed in their final qualifier against Saudi Arabia in Amman, while hoping the result between Oman and Kuwait went Iraq’s way, coach Hamad took drastic action. He dropped three of the team’s regular starters and only foreign-based players – Nashat Akram, Emad Mohammed and Younis Mahmoud –with rumours of a rift between the star players in the Iraqi camp. The Saudis scored first, but it was the unlikely figure of defender Haidar Abdul-Amir who turned hero, heading the equaliser exactly a year to the day since representing Al-Shaab against a team of US soldiers at the re-opening of the Iraqi stadium after the war.
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 for the result between Kuwait and Oman.
When the Iraqis realised the game had ended goalless, there were euphoric scenes on the pitch, with players dancing with Iraqi FA officials. Abdul-Khaliq Masoud, the potbellied president of the current association even sat with supporters in the stands.
Iraq had qualified for the Olympic Games, which some international news outlets wrongly reported as the nation’s first ever, forgetting the three in 1980, 1984 and 1988.
It was decided that that Hamad’s squad would represent Iraq at the 2004 Asian Cup, as preparation for the Olympics in Athens.
With three over-age players – libero Haidar Jabar, team captain and midfielder Abdul-Wahab Abu Al-Hail and Razzaq Farhan – Iraq, despite losing 1-0 to Uzbekistan in their opening match, reached the knock-out stages after beating Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan.
In the quarter-final in Beijing, Iraq were truly humbled by the hosts China, the 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’s head-butt on Sun Jihai cost him a place at the Olympics, and in his place came Nour Sabri.
The popular Sabri had been substituted at half-time of Iraq’s Olympic qualifying game 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 focus on the match, 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 Greece, the keeper stood with the rest of the Iraqi players for the national anthems.
Across them was a powerful Portuguese team, one of the pre-tournament favourites and including Manchester United 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 giving them a 2-1 lead.
On the stroke of half-time, Jose Boswinga equalised from outside the box but just before the hour mark, Younis Mahmoud – with a plaster covering his eye after 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 Ronaldo, as he had been after the final of the European Championship a few months earlier, was left in tears.
Iraq 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 match was billed as Atlas Lions versus the Lions of Mesopotamia, a nickname that would endure for the Iraqis.
From Patras, the Iraqi Olympic side travelled to Heraklion to play Australia in the quarter-finals. 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, passionate screams tinged, with tears of sheer emotion, could be heard back in Baghdad.
The result had everyone believing that Iraq could win the tournament. Even US president George W Bush declared he would attend the final if Iraq made it that far. This struck a nerve with the Iraqi team, and several players expressed their opposition to the US president.
Paraguay were up next in the semis. The South Americans had, like Iraq, prepared for the Olympics by sending their U23s to the Copa America in Peru, where they topped a group featuring Brazil and Chile before losing to Uruguay in the quarterfinals.
From the start, 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. The devastated players collapsed on the pitch, some with tears, others knowing that their chance had gone.
There was still the bronze -medal to contest against a talented Italian side featuring a young Andrea Pirlo. Alberto Gilardino solitary goal edged it for the team that would go on to win the World Cup two years later.
Adnan Hamad’s boys had run their hearts out at the Olympics, their Herculean efforts seeing them hit heights no one dreamed were possible. The squad had gathered after the war, much like a defeated army, with no stadium, no functioning league and with some of the players not having played any competitive football for almost three months.
Leaving the Iraqi capital in an Australian military plane and in borrowed army gear, some of the players suffered from travel sickness, and even when they reached Greece, only hours before their opening game, the team’s shirts had not arrived.
Against such obstacles, Iraq, not for the first or last time, defied the odds. This was the birth of the Lions of Mesopotamia, the team that can pull off the impossible when all seemed lost. Three years later, immortality awaited.