The Guardian – Yalla Yalla! The joy and pain of supporting Iraqi football

Irrespective of the on-field heartbreak or heroics, the Iraqi football fans have shown an Australian audience what passion looks like

Younis Mahmoud is chaired off the pitch following the game against Iran. Photograph: WGC
Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.
Bill Shankly, Liverpool FC

When he shared this nugget of wisdom, it was unlikely that Shankly had Iraqi football fans in mind, but it’s a more than fitting adage.

There is never a dull moment supporting the Lions of Mesopotamia, a team of perennial underdogs that brings joy and pain to its fans in equal measure.

Asian Cup 2015 has been the usual mix of both, a white-knuckle ride blending genius, passion and heartache.

In Wollongong for a wet and miserable trial game against Iran a week before the Asian Cup, the 4000-strong Iraqi crowd left the ground in anger after captain Younis Mahmoud botched a ‘Panenka’ penalty, gifting Iran a 1-0 win.

Their love-hate, chain-smoking hero had let them down.

Mahmoud is one of the greatest Asian footballers of all time, forever etched in Iraqi folklore after his header won the 2007 Asian Cup against Saudi Arabia.

Now playing in his fourth Asian Cup and one of the team’s few Sunni Muslims, he has a talismanic and unifying importance beyond football.

Having not played for a club in the previous 12 months, and with serious doubts whether he was even going to make the Asian Cup, the Iraqi legend was not beyond critique by hardcore Iraqi fans.

When I tried to console one of their media that it was only a “friendly” game he barked: “We don’t play friendlies. Football is football.”

That passion is precisely what the Iraqis, Iranians and others have brought to Australia for the Asian Cup.

A taste of what football is all about – real life-and-death passion from cultures where football is the glue and real religion.

Iraq won their first game against Jordan, lost to Japan in their second and, in a crucial game, defeated Palestine 2-0 via the always dangerous Mahmoud, his mystical brand of magic and madness dominating the game.

Sadly, after the game, Mahmoud was stripped of penalty-taking duties, a tough pill to swallow for an ice-cool player in the twilight of a great career. Maybe team management was right. Being without a club for a year may have impacted their great hero’s nerve. Only time would solve this mystery.

The celebrations continued and unlike their Iranian counterparts, the Iraqi players did not get into trouble for taking selfies with female fans.

Abrar Al Asaleh, the convenor of the Iraqi Community Ambassador steering committee in Sydney, with Asian Cup CEO Michael Brown. Photograph: Red Elephant Projects

One standout moment illustrating the different and beautiful relationship Iraqi players have with their fans was Dhurgham Ismail nursing a pitch invader out of trouble.

In stark contrast and a reminder of the horrifying situation in Iraq, 13 Kurdish children were executed by ISIS. Their crime? Watching the Iraq v Jordan game.

And so it was – a mind-blowing Asian Cup Quarter final – Iraq to play against Iran – their oldest of old enemies. The ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms of Babylon & Assyria against ancient Persia in sweet, unsuspecting Canberra.

In the Iraqi heartland of Fairfield in Western Sydney, I sat down for a tea with Asian Cup Community Ambassador Emil Shiba.

Assyrian beats thumped out of the shop next door. Iraqi flags and photos of the team were up in every shop window.

In another life, Shiba had been in the Iraqi army, including the war against Iran and facing the Coalition in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

“It was only three years after the Iran-Iraq war and me and my brothers were conscripted again. We were tired from war and, because of the sanctions, even the army had no food.

“Many of us went home, our hearts weren’t in it. It was nothing to do with us. The war only lasted 20 days.”

“Don’t forget in Iraq that the army is compulsory and cannot be avoided.”

Tired of war, he travelled to Jordan to study theology and his wife, who was already in Australia, sponsored him in.

He has thrived in the relative peace of Fairfield, becoming a well known Assyrian poet and working for Mission Australia with at-risk, homeless and newly arrived youth. He is also a community liaison officer in schools with Arabic background students.

He is grateful for the opportunities Australia has offered him and his family: “My daughter is the third-best fencer in Australia and this year she represents Australia in the Asian Fencing Championships in Abu Dhabi and then in the world championships in Uzbekistan.

“The Iraqi Fencing Association have made us lots of offers but she loves representing Australia.

“My son goes for the Socceroos, not Iraq!”

I had witnessed this phenomena across a number of Asian communities in Australia – the child supporting the Socceroos and the parents supporting the country of their youth.

Many Iraqi fans at each game were sporting jerseys that were half Socceroos and half Iraqi. Proud of their dual identity and, importantly, proud to be Australian.

I asked Emil why he still supports Iraq after the persecution his Assyrian Christian people have gone through.

He answered: “I am an indigenous person of Iraq. I cannot get rid of my blood. Politics comes and goes but they are all my fellow brothers sharing the same land.”

Days before the Iran v Iraq showdown I was approached by Abrar al Saleh, the convenor of the Iraqi Community Ambassador steering committee in Sydney.

Abrar’s family fled Nasrya when she was 18 months old and she spent her childhood in Iran before moving to Australia.

The power of Iraqi football is clear to her: “Our country doesn’t find happiness outside football. It is the only thing that can take our mind away.

“Football means so much: it’s played on every doorstep, every street corner, every roof. It’s like Brazil, it’s in our hearts.”

I asked about captain Mahmoud and his importance and she spoke reverently: “In 2007, Iraq was a country of bloodshed, disunity, not trusting your neighbour and people started carrying weapons in houses.

“Younis gave us that beautiful header and made us so happy, it united us, it saved lives, it brought us back together when religion, politics and other countries were dividing us.”

The 2007 Asian Cup win took its toll on the Iraq coach, Brazilian Jorvan Vieira. He resigned saying: “If my contract was for six months and not for two, they would have had to take me to the hospital for crazy people!”

Enthusiastic and colourfully head-scarved, Abrar was trying to organise a coach to Canberra to take Iraqi women and families who were feverish to watch the quarter-final against Iran.

Abrar said: “It’s tough to explain to you how excited our women are and how keen they are to get to Canberra.

“There has never been anything like this in Australia.”

These women rarely left Western Sydney and, with the intervention of the CEO of Capital Football, Heather Reid, they were able to travel down with the convoy of Iraqi and Iranian fans who converged on Canberra for the quarter-final which turned out to be a dramatic cliff hanger.

Iraqi Coach and former international Radhi Shenaishil captured the sense of occasion perfectly: “There is history between Iraq and Iran but let’s have a quality match and forget emotions. We want to give the right impression of the football in Asia, the quality in Asia.”

The stage was set for Iraq to thrill or devastate their fans and the stadium chanting was unbelievable between the two sets of supporters.

The drums were beating, songs were sung and once the dancing started it didn’t stop.

Iraq’s team, a multicultural patchwork of Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Mendaeans hadn’t played a home game in almost 20 years due to their domestic security situation.

After years of immigration fleeing sectarian violence, Iraqi Players had come from all over the world to Australia, including American-born MLS star Justin Meram.

Ian Botham once said about Australian cricket: “There is no such thing as an Australian pushover. You could drag 11 guys off Bondi Beach, stick them in whites and tell them the Ashes was at stake and you’d have to be at your best to beat them.”

Iraqi football is no different and this assembled group had a man to rally around. Some of them were in their early teens when Younis delivered the goal to win the Asian Cup in 2007.

In their front yards as young boys, they had endlessly recreated his 2007 goal and now they got to hang out with and play with their flawed but mighty hero.

Regardless of the fact he was not playing regular football, the Iraq coach had faith Mahmoud would lead his pack of homeless, wandering footballers to take on the organised might of Team Melli, one of the pedigree bluebloods of Asian football.

Mahmoud’s only concession to father time was he was not to take penalties. Like all champions, he picked his battles.

Iraq and Iran both scored and an Iranian player Mehrdad Pooladi was sent off in a baffling decision by referee Ben Williams.

Cometh the moment, cometh the man – Younis Mahmoud, with the timing of all true champions sent 33 million people jumping for joy, heading home to put Iraq in the lead.

Iran equalised sending the game into extra time, both sets of fans hyperventilating with excitement at the drama.

Iraq scored again and, following another dramatic equaliser from Iran, after extra time the game ended at 3-3 and went to penalties.

In unbelievably tense conditions, Iran were 5-4 ahead when up stepped Mahmoud, nowhere to hide after his demotion from penalty-taking duties.

Had he missed his penalty, Iraq was out of the Asian Cup.

What happened next is extraordinary.

One Kurdish Iraqi media editor said with a granite straight face: “Younis would have needed a police escort if he missed his Panenka.”

Considering the stakes, to try another Panenka was one of the gutsiest moves in sporting history and, for many, the moment of the tournament.

Mahmoud had gone to that different place that legends occupy.

He had been aware of the stakes and said after the game: “After the penalty I missed against Iran in Wollongong, I needed to make something special for my people in Australia.

“Against Iran, another chance came for me and I want to make a good picture. I think any player who misses this, he stops, he kills himself in football. Maybe God helped me with this.

“I needed this so I can bring back confidence from my people for Younis Mahmood. They’re now all happy. I think I made this for my people.”

Redemption Iraqi style.