(This story first ran in September 2017)
The clock ticked down on Iraq’s World Cup hopes. And its golden generation.
A glorious decade of football was about to be bookended with a 2-0 defeat to the UAE in the return – “home” – leg of their World Cup qualifying play-off for the 1986 World Cup finals.
Having won 3-2 in Dubai a week earlier, just one goal, even at that late stage, in the second leg in Saudi Arabia would have seen them through to the final play-off round.
But their time looked up.
An Emirati television commentator famously called on his countrymen to meet the victorious UAE squad on their return to Dubai airport; words he would live to regret for the rest of his life.
Because precisely at that moment, the impossible happened.
World Cup qualification
Iraqi football fans have plenty of memorable moments to call on. And long memories.
Their team has won the Gulf Cup on three occasions; played, with distinction, at the 1980, 2004 and 2014 Olympics; and achieved nothing short of a football miracle by winning the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.
But for sheer drama – edge-of-seat, cannot-believe-your own-eyes drama – nothing comes close to the goal, on September 27, 1985, that kept alive the dream of a place at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
At the final whistle, the Emirati players – many of whom, remarkably, would qualify to the World Cup four years later – collapsed all over the pitch at King Fahd Stadium in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s were delirious.
Karim Saddam’s stoppage time volley has gone down in Iraqi football history, the moment a nation mired in a devastating war with Iran upset the odds to reach their one and only World Cup to date. Except it didn’t quite do that.
A final two-legged play-off round against Syria was still to be negotiated Yet this felt every bit a qualification to the finals. So much so, in fact, that years later –in a footballing equivalent of the Mandela Effect – many Emirati and Iraqi fans, and even players, still wrongly remember it as the day Iraq secured their place at Mexico 86.
Perhaps it was the reprieve, and relief, that made the final two matches seem a formality. In hindsight, they were.
Iraq, unable to host games on home soil because of the war with Iran, were to play their home leg in Ta’if again, on November 29. In two politically charged matches, the team managed by relative unknown Jorge Vieira overcame Syria 3-1 at home, after drawing 0-0 in Damascus.
Four years after their greatest rivals Kuwait had qualified to the World Cup, Iraq were heading to Mexico 86.
To say Iraqi football was controlled by politics would be an understatement, and there was little understated about the man in control of Iraqi football.
Saddam Hussein’s son Uday had taken over as the head of the country’s Football Association in 1984, starting a reign that would, officially at least, last until his death in 2003. It would prove over the years, in ways that transcended mere football matters, to be a catastrophic period.
In 1985, the then 21-year-old’s barbaric tendencies were yet to be realised fully. But in terms of meddling in the country’s footballing affairs, he was a natural.
Following the successful qualification campaign, Uday replaced manager Jorge Vieira with another Brazilian. Edú Coimbra, brother of the legendary Zico, and Vieira’s assistant, was now tasked with preparing the team for the World Cup.
Several friendly matches against overseas opposition and a sixth place finish in the Gulf Cup later, and with the World Cup only a month away, Uday sacked Vieira for yet another Brazilian.
Evaristo de Macedo had achieved some qualified success in Qatar and managed his county briefly in 1985, but barely had time to learn his players’ names.
In a symbolic move that even now still astounds, Uday replaced the national team’s iconic, and beloved, green and white shirts, with yellow and light blue outfits, the former being the colour of his own club of Al Rasheed.
When Iraq took to the field in Mexico, they were unrecognisable in more ways than one.
Iraq’s road to Mexico had its fair share of standout moments, not least the winner against the UAE. And the 1986 World Cup remains one of the most fondly remembered of all.
European Champions France, with Platini Giresse and Tigana; a still formidable Brazil who boasted Socrates, Zico and Careca; the ever-dangerous West Germans; and above all, the magical, peerless Diego Maradona and Argentina.
Drama, however, was in short supply, in Iraq’s three matches.
With hosts Mexico, Belgium and Paraguay joining them in Group B, Iraq were not expected to progress. However, this was no group of death either, and many Iraq fans, brought up on tails of heroism over the past decade, believed the fabled golden generation had one last surprise up their sleeves.
Though the team still included veteran goalkeeper Raad Hamoudi, and arguably Iraq’s two finest ever players, Hussein Saeed and Ahmad Radhi, the optimists would be bitterly disappointed.
Evaristo was, unlike his immediate Brazilian predecessors, a pragmatist. Whether under orders from Uday or not, he saw the World Cup as a damage limitation exercise rather a chance to resurrect the “jogo bonito” approach that beloved Iraqi coach Ammo Baba had instilled in the Iraqi team in the 1970s.
When Iraq got to Mexico, any hopes that the players would unilaterally cast off the shackles and play with a newly-found freedom, proved forlorn.
In the first match against Paraguay at La Bombonera in Toluca, and playing in yellow, Iraq had started the brighter of the two teams but trailed by Julio Romero’s lobbed goal after 35 minutes.
Then, on the stroke of half-time, came one of those inexplicable moments that football, and the World Cup, often throw up.
The Iraqis thought they had equalised after Ahmed Radhi headed in from a corner. However, Mauritian referee Edwin Picon-Ackong, astonishingly, disallowed what seemed a perfectly good goal, having blown for half-time a split-second after the corner had been taken.
It was not the first time the World Cup had seen such petty officiousness. At the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Brazil were denied a last minute winner against Sweden in identical circumstances.
The Iraqi players and management were incensed but the match officials were hardly going to go back on their decision during the half-time break. With that injustice, the one truly dramatic moment of Iraq’s campaign in Mexico was gone.
They lost to Paraguay 1-0.
For Iraq, the task was increasingly difficult. Next up was a strong Belgium team that included Enzo Scifo, Nico Claesen and Jan Ceulemans.
It proved a petulant encounter.
By the 21st minute, Belgium had scored twice, through the gifted Scifo and Claesen’s spot kick. Unhappy with several decisions, including the penalty award, the Iraqi players lost their heads. Five were booked, mostly for dissent, and a sixth, Basil Gorgis, was sent off for two cautions after 54 minutes.
Iraq, missing Saeed through injury, were facing mission impossible, but unsurprisingly the team that thrives against the odds rallied one more time.
Only five minutes after the dismissal, Ahmad Radhi equalised with carbon copy of Scifo’s goal.
To this day, it remains the only goal scored by an Iraqi in World Cup. Which meant they lost the match 2-1.
At least the Iraqi players had the not insignificant honour of gracing one of the world’s greatest football arenas, the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, when they faced the host nation in front of 103,000 fans.
Once again, the Iraqis, in the unfamiliar blue kit, did not disgrace themselves, yet nor did they send the pulses racing. From a Manuel Negrete free-kick, Fernando Quirarte scored from a tight angle, ending the contest 10 minutes into the second half.
Three matches, three defeats, one goal, and early return home to a presumably unimpressed Uday Hussein.
For many Iraqis, indeed lovers of football in the Middle East, it was a hugely underwhelming way for years of Iraqi excellence to come to an end.
Uday’s reign of terror had yet to begin in earnest. The tales of reward and punishment, and torture of athletes whose performances did not live up to his absurd demands, would come later, following the Gulf War in 1991.
The last remnants of the team that thrilled the Middle East and Asia in the late 1970s and early 80s, were coming to the end of the road. Raad Hamoudi retired a year after the World Cup. Hussein Saeed followed in 1990 with records for most appearances (137, later surpassed by Younis Mahmoud) and most goals (78), which is joint fifth (with Cristiano Ronaldo, no less) on the all time international list; behind Iran’s Ali Daei, Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas, Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto and Zambia’s Godfrey Chitalu, and one more than Pele.
Ahmad Radhi was voted 1988 Asian Footballer of the Year, something no other Iraqi has achieved since.
As for the team, there was one last hurrah at the 1988 Gulf Cup of Nations, their third and last title.
The invasion of Saddam Hussein’s army of Kuwait and Uday’s sadistic treatment of players meant that Iraqi football – like all aspects of its society – went through some tragic times. When it emerged into the light at the turn of the century, it proved a unifying force to a country torn by war and sectarianism, and never more than when the Lions of Mesopotamia claimed the AFC Asian Cup in 2007. But that’s another story.
Iraq disappointed at the World Cup in 1986. Like Kuwait four years earlier, and the UAE four years later, the real glory came in those unforgettable qualifying campaigns.