The Arabic nation only has two Olympic medals in their trophy cabinet, both bronze. One for weightlifting in 1960, the other for the men’s soccer team’s astonishing run to the semi-finals in Athens, 2004.
At Rio 2016, The Lions are in the hunt for another after clawing their way to qualifying to compete in Brazil.
Iraq were handed a tough draw in the Rio 2016 Men’s Olympic Soccer tournament alongside South Africa, Denmark and hosts Brazil in Group A. Despite having the odds stacked against them, the squad is looking to become a beacon of hope for the war-ravaged region.
The country’s political condition still remains unstable. Since the 2003 invasion of the country by British and American forces there has been very little to cheer about. For that reason, the nation’s participation in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and qualification for the soccer tournament has been welcomed with open arms.
“It’s not only a sports victory,” government worker Hayder Al Sadi told The National. “In Iraq, politics and terrorism permeate everything, but football is the only window, the only escape for the Iraqi people.”
With the rising tide of ISIS continuing to threaten Iraq, there is a huge fear as to what the insurgent group could bring across their borders, specifically for their footballers. Recently, four members of Raqqa, a Syrian team, were executed by Islamic State militants under accusations of being spies for Kurdish forces.
The Daily Mail also reported that last year, ISIS executed 13 teenage boys in Iraq for watching the 2015 Asian Cup match-up between Japan and Jordan. The teens had been caught watching the match on television in the city of Mosul and were publicly executed by firing squad.
Similarly 12 people were slain in another part of the country controlled by ISIS, the Shiite city of Balad, for watching the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
The Taliban, a similarly draconian extremist group, another neighbor and threat to Iraq, had an equally vicious attitude to the most popular sport in the world. When they took control of Afghanistan in 1996, they converted the country’s soccer fields, once sites of competition and recreation, into public execution centers.
The Rio Olympics 2016 is Iraq’s first Men’s Olympic Football Tournament since 2004. They gained the right to compete with a 2-1 extra time victory over Qatar in the AFC U-23 Championship third place play-off. Ahmed Alaa’s first-half goal was cancelled out by Mohanad Abdulraheem’s late leveler before Aymen Hussein headed home in the 109th minute.
Aymen Hussein, the match winner that night scored a goal that united Iraq into a rare moment of triumph and optimism. His life however has already been turned inside out by the onrushing horde of ISIS militants.
Hussein and his family fled their home in a village outside the northern city of Kirkuk as IS swept across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014. His brother, who was working for the local police, was abducted by the extremists and has not been heard from since. Previously in 2008 his father was killed amid an Al-Qaeda claimed bombing in Baghdad.
The 20-year-old striker is now on his way to Brazil and has become a minor celebrity in his country. After the team secured qualification to compete in Brazil’s soccer tournament the team were greeted by the president of the country, Haider al-Abadi. Hussein currently uses the game to support and provide safety to his family and is thankful for the position he now finds himself in.
“I never thought that one goal would cause this much happiness,” he told NBC Sports. “If I leave football, nothing would change. I wouldn’t get any of those things back,” he said. “I still thank God for my situation. I have walls around me. Many of the displaced Iraqis are living in tents.”
Adding: “I’ve never even left Iraq except for trips with the football team. I only know about Brazil from YouTube and TV. They say that it’s famous for beaches and women.”
After his extra time winner the team were also received by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias fighting IS alongside Iraq’s regular security forces. Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, said al-Muhandis compared the players to his fighters. “He said that we don’t give blood, but we give inspiration.”
Iraq is one of the most successful nations in the Arab world. In the early 1960s they won the Arab Cup on four occasions in 1964, 1966, 1985 and 1988, the Gulf Cup on three occasions in 1979, 1984, and 1988, and the biggest achievement, qualification to the World Cup held in Mexico in 1986.
However, during a brutal period under the regime of the Hussein family, who took over the country in 1979, sport was forced to undergo a rough period when Saddam Hussein assigned his sadistic and violent son, Uday, to take over as head of both the Iraqi Football Association and Olympic Committee in 1984. During his reign, Iraqi athletes were threatened, beaten and even caned if they lost a match. The shaving of players’ heads was a common consequence of defeat.
Uday’s running of sport was nothing short of tyrannical. Players, weren’t allowed to play abroad unless they paid 60% of their salaries to Uday himself, he controlled and rigged the domestic league and frequently imprisoned and tortured players.
The Mesopotamian Lions’ last appearance in Olympics soccer was in 2004, months after the invasion of Iraq and subsequent political crisis. In Greece they upset the odds by defeating Portugal, Costa Rica and Australia to reach the semi-final and bronze medal match, losing to Paraguay and Italy respectively to finish fourth and record the nation’s best ever finish in Olympics soccer.
22-year-old Mohanad Abdulraheem was a young boy at the time and remembers the achievement. He will now be one of the players representing his country this time around in Brazil. “Every human being has dreams and I’ve managed to achieve my ambitions so far, thanks to everyone who helped me become a footballer,” he told FIFA.com.
The striker plays for Duhok SC in the Iraqi league and has represented Iraq on numerous age levels. He is keen to use the tournament to develop his trade but is realistic about the nation’s chances in South America.
“Personally, I want to keep improving and follow in the footsteps of the great Iraq forwards who shone during the 1970s. Qualifying for the Olympic Games is a real achievement for us. We’re not expected to win a medal, but we want to follow in the footsteps of the team that made it to the semi-finals in Athens in 2004.”
Iraq have qualified for the World Cup once, in 1986 where they were eliminated at the group stage. Drawn alongside Mexico, Paraguay and Belgium they lost each game conceding four times and scoring once. One of Abdulraheem’s heroes Ahmed Radhi netted against Belgium in a 2-1 defeat.
As if their domestic problems weren’t enough, Iraq also have some selection concerns ahead of the tournament. Iraq and Columbus Crew midfielder Justin Meram was called up to the side as one of the three allocated over-23 players but club and country could not come to an agreement of when he would be released and returned to the club, a pre-tournament training camp in Algeria the main sticking point.
Meram, a Michigan native whose parents emigrated from Iraq, said missing the Olympics is disappointing, but he hopes to continue to play for Iraq’s senior national team. “They really wanted me,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate with the way the MLS season works. I won’t be able to say I’m an Olympian, so I’m shifting my focus to (the Crew) and the senior national team.”
Turkey’s Çaykur Rizespor Club did not allow its two Iraqi players Dhurgham Ismail and Ali Husni to join their national Olympic team either. Similarly, Iraq’s 2015 player of the year Yaser Kasim’s involvement with the national team in Rio has been put into doubt. Kasim’s English team, Swindon Town, had agreed to release Kasim in July, but the Robins are currently considering a transfer offer from another team who would then hold the cards on whether the player could compete in Rio 2016.
Iraq will begin their Olympic campaign on August 4th in Brasilia against Denmark before taking on Brazil in the same stadium three days later. They will then travel to Sao Paulo to take on South Africa on 10th August.
The Lions of Mesopotamia are also in the hunt for World Cup 2018 qualification an have reached the third round of qualifying where they have been drawn into a group containing heavyweights Australia and Japan as well as Saudi Arabia, UAE and
Thailand. Meanwhile Iraq have also entered athletes into Boxing, Judo, Rowing and Weightlifting for Rio 2016.