AFC Cup triumph can be a balm to soothe Iraq's troubled footballing climate, but is it enough?

The last time an Iraqi side claimed glory on the continental stage, the joy was blemished by a night of violence. It was the year 2007, when Iraq surprised the football world by claiming the Asian Cup title. Their fairytale run brought people into the streets and produced joyous celebrations.

"Through winning the cup, we did what America and the government could not do, which was to unite the country," said striker Younis Mahmoud four years later, before Iraq's 2011 Asian Cup campaign.

Even in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, which has had a difficult relationship with the Iraqi State, people wholeheartedly celebrated the team's success. But the night Iraq confirmed their spot in the final, car bombs exploded in Baghdad, and at least 50 were killed while over 100 people were injured, as football fans were targeted.

Iraq's Air Force Club celebrate with the AFC Cup trophy. AFP

Iraq's Air Force Club celebrate with the AFC Cup trophy. AFP

Reality had found a way to gatecrash the party. Irony had its share of joy as well as a few more became targets of falling bullets, which were fired in celebration of Iraq's victory.

One can only hope that the latest Iraqi success on the football pitch does not encounter any tragedy. But the fear of violence is alive and threatening. The Iraqi national team continue to play all their international fixtures outside the country due to the ongoing war against ISIS.

A report in The Hindu quoted the media officer of newly-crowned AFC Cup champion Air Force SC (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya), Sattar Jabbar, as saying, "The conflict has had very bad effects. Even for the players I must say. Some of their brothers and fathers fight in the army (against ISIS). When they call, they ask the players to win so that they can have something to celebrate."

Well, now they do. Hammadi Ahmed, who has worked as a part-time maths professor, scored for the 16th time in the tournament to seal the title on Saturday night. By scoring in the final, the 27-year-old striker kept his record of striking the net in every match he played in the competition.

Air Force achieved the success without playing a single match at their home stadium in Baghdad. The club's home away from home was Doha. Although the final was played in a different stadium from the one they used as a home venue for the competition, it was fitting that Air Force achieved their greatest triumph in the Qatari capital. Never before had an Iraqi side won an AFC club competition. Erbil SC, an Iraqi-Kurdish team, which was the first in its country to recruit foreign players, lost the final in 2012 and 2014. Air Force, Iraq's first and oldest professional club, has now embalmed a few of the wounds that hurt its people.

Earlier this year, the Baghdad-side had overcome a 12-year wait for a major domestic title. By winning the AFC Cup, Air Force have now brought back some of the pleasant memories that were associated with Iraq's 2007 Asian Cup triumph.

The club's assistant coach Mehdi Jassim had emphasised the significance of the final for the country. Despite being distanced from the team, there remains considerable public interest in its fortunes. "All the people back in Baghdad, those on Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, they all wish us good," Jassim told The Hindu.

And the wishes did not go to waste. However, as Iraq struggle in the ongoing qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it seems unlikely that redemption on the global stage is within the national side's grasp. The scars left by the American invasion and the conflict with the ISIS will not heal anytime soon. When Iraq reached the semi-final of the 2004 Olympics in men's football, then team coach Adnan Hamad asked in exasperation: "The American Army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the stadium and there are shootings on the road?"

Hamad's question was in reply to a George W Bush advertisement, which appeared during the 2004 US Presidential election. The ad had insolently claimed that Afghanistan and Iraq were participating as "free" nations at the Olympic Games in Athens.

As another US Presidential election lies on the horizon, Air Force's win is imbued with meaning. It is a success that has arrived in spite of the problems that surround Iraqi people. Indeed, that is what makes it a remarkable story.

During Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime, a strong nationalist sentiment had been developed, which remains visible to the day. Although he was not known to be a fan of the sport, other members of his family meddled in football administration. As David Goldblatt documents in The Ball is Round, Hussein's half-brothers Barzan and Watban Ibrahim were responsible for the rise of their hometown club from Tikrit in the early '80s. Furthermore, his son-in- law, General Hussein Kemil vouched for the army's team Al-Jaish, which saw the Iraqi Football Association being ordered to provide the country's best players for the club. It was a morale-boosting exercise as the armed forces suffered in their war efforts against Iran.

But it was Hussein's son, Uday, who left the deepest mark on the Iraqi sporting scene. By running the country's Olympic committee as a private fiefdom, he took charge of all sporting federations. As a Sports Illustrated story documented in 2003, athletes were tortured physically and mentally. Former national team footballer Sharar Hayday's words bear retelling. "One time after a friendly against Jordan in Amman that we lost 2-0, Uday had me and three others taken to prison. When we arrived, they took off out shirts, tied our feet together and pulled our knees over a bar as we lay on our backs. Then they dragged us over pavement and concrete, pulling the skin off our backs. Then they dragged us through a sandpit to get sand in our backs. Finally, they made us climb a ladder and jump into a vat of raw sewage…"

And there was more. In Uday's time, his favourite side Al-Rasheed flourished. With the country's best talent at its disposal and the referees bought off, the club dominated domestic football and even won the Arab Champions Cup three years in a row.

However, Uday's autocratic mode of functioning took its toll, as Iraq weakened on the international scene. When the team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, the squad was made to kick concrete footballs until the players broke their toes and bones in soles. Reports of torture were finally investigated by FIFA in 2001 but such was the reign of fear that none of the players dared to utter the truth.

After the collapse of Hussein's dictatorship, the US-led armies took over. The national football stadium was used to house the American military's trucks and other vehicles. Ever since, Iraqi football has been trying and failing to get to its feet.

The Asian Cup win in 2007 proved to be a false dawn. It is likely that Air Force's AFC Cup triumph will go the same way. In a country where life often seems on life support, football can only do so much.

Updated Date: Nov 06, 2016 10:06 AM

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