Illustration by Federico Manasse. Check out more of his work here
Saddam Hussein was not pleased. And when Saddam Hussein was not pleased, bad things tended to happen. The object of his easily-provoked ire this time was a football match. Not just any football match, but the mother of all football matches in the Middle East circa 1980: Iraq versus Kuwait.
With or without his orders, bad things were now happening on the pitch, and would continue later in the bowels of Baghdad’s Al Shaab stadium where Saddam stood. The Iraqi president’s team had just lost a spectacularly niggly match to their arch rivals, confirming Kuwait had secured qualification to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Iraq’s dejected, and one would imagine genuinely petrified footballers, were set to stay at home and face the repercussions from their displeased leader.
Even in 1980, mere months after he officially became the president, Saddam’s Iraq was a frightening place to be. It would prove to be for the referee of a football match that would go down in infamy.
The battle was the natural, unedifying conclusion to a series of matches between the two nations that captivated the region’s football fans of that era. But first, some context.
Politics and sports should never mix, we’re often told. It’s the kind of utopian soundbites spouted out of fancy offices in Zürich by FIFA and Olympic Committee suits, or worse by wilfully naive journalists. In the Middle East, this notion is laughable.
It’s not that football and other sports are influenced or even manipulated by politics; they are wholly controlled by politics. Or to be more accurate, by politicians – angry, callous politicians. Politicians like Saddam Hussein.
Things were not always that dystopian, however. For a brief, glorious period in the mid-1970s, football in both Kuwait and Iraq flourished. The neighbours enjoyed a unique football rivalry that the Middle East had not seen before.
It all started at the 1976 Gulf Cup of Nations in Doha, Qatar. The seven-nation tournament might not have been a FIFA sanctioned competition but it was one that for a long time held a lot of significance for the teams that took part in it – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Iraq.
Between 1970 and 1990, the tournament saw only two winners – Kuwait seven times (1970, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1982, 1986, 1990) and Iraq three (1979, 1984, 1988). Doha in 1976 gave birth to the legend of the golden generations of both nations, each with differing philosophies.
Read | Mário Zagallo: Brazil’s habitual World Cup winner
Kuwait were Brazil-inspired. There was Jassem Yaqoub, Abdulaziz Al Anbari, Hamad Abu Hamad, Fathi Kameel, goalkeeper Ahmad Tarabulsi, captain Saad Al Houti and the gifted Faisal Al Dakhil. Under Brazilian coaches Mário Zagallo (1976-78) and Carlos Alberto Parreira (1978-82), the boys in blue transcended football in their home country to become national heroes, with public figures and celebrities falling over themselves to be associated with team.
Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the head of the Kuwaiti FA and a man who was integral to his nation’s football success, bestowed the title of “The King” on golden boy Al Dakhil. who was also nicknamed “The Hurricane” by the country’s most renowned actor, Abdulhussain Abdulredha. The tall, leggy Kameel was “The Gazelle” and goal-machine Yacoub became “The Terroriser”.
Just as popular was legendary commentator Khalid Al Harban, endearingly remembered as the 12th member of the team. “He was part of the golden generation,” said Yaqoub, top scorer at the third and fourth Gulf Cup wins. “He played a part in all our achievements. Not just in Kuwait but all across the Arab world, everyone knows him. For us he was like a teacher and a brother. He was one of Kuwait’s icons.”
It was a perfect union of a golden generation of players of players, colourful, loyal and knowledgeable supporters, and a forward-looking football association. Crucially, according to Abdullah Bishara, the Kuwaiti first secretary general of the GCC, one factor played a major role in the country’s football success: a lack of political interference.
“At that time sports was immunised from politics, it was isolated and kept away from domestic politics of Kuwait,” said Bishara, who served from 1981 to 1993. “In the 1970s and 80s when the late Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmad Al Jaber was the head of the Kuwait FA, he and his other colleagues from the Gulf worked together to achieve one philosophy in football, based on ethics and promotion of professionalism and entrenching of sporting spirit.”
Iraq, managed by the Croatian Lenko Grčić (1976-78) and later their very own legendary coach Emmanuel “Ammo” Baba (1978-80 and 1981-84) countered with an equally brilliant generation.
There was the flying Raad Hammoudi in goal, left-wing wizard Ali Kadhim, box-to-box midfielder Hadi Ahmed, Nigem Al Fartooss, Sabah Abdulghalil; and gravity-defying centre-forward Falah Hassan, nicknamed “Seeler” for his physical resemblance to West German international Uwe. Later came man-mountain Adnan Dirjal and forwards Hussein Saeed and Ahmad Radhi, perhaps Iraq’s two greatest players.
For them, however, political interference came much earlier than in Kuwait, thanks to Saddam and, later in the 1980s, his equally sadistic son Uday.
With two supremely gifted teams, who happen to be neighbours, guaranteed to clash across several competitions, it was inevitable a fierce rivalry would develop. And it did, in 1976, with three titanic matches that defined an era.
Kuwait had won the first three Gulf Cups with plenty to spare, the likes of Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia barely putting up any meaningful resistance. As the fourth edition of the competition in Doha approached, it was clear that the Kuwaitis would no longer have things their own way. In their first participation, Iraq would prove a formidable addition to the competition.
Read | A simple game in a complex world
As expected, both teams were swatting aside the others with relative ease. Iraq beat Oman 4-0 and Saudi Arabia 7-1, while Kuwait thrashed Oman 8-0 and Qatar 4-0. When the two clashed on 5 April, they produced easily the best match of the competition had seen yet.
The Kuwaiti players had not faced a team of Iraq’s intensity in this competition before. Iraq dominated the first half with some aggressive attacking football, with Hassan proving a nightmare for the Kuwaiti defence with his astonishing ability to hang in the air. Ali Kadhim, the slender, tricky left-sided forward was causing havoc on the left wing. Not for the last time against this opposition, Kuwait goalkeeper Al Tarabulsi was forced to perform heroics.
Iraq raced into a two-goal lead straight after half-time through long-range strikes by Sabah Abdulghalil and Kadhim, but Kuwait came storming back. On 55 minutes, Yaqoub cut the deficit to one from close range, and a minute later, Al Dakhil ensured the match finished all square with header from inside the six-yard box.
The 2-2 draw meant Kuwait and Iraq ended the competition on the same number of points. The winner-takes-all playoff match somehow managed to surpass the first match for drama.
Al Anbari gave Kuwait an eighth-minute lead, only for Ahmad Sobhi to equalise a minute later. On 25 minutes, Al Anbari restored Kuwait’s lead before Yaqoub scored a gem of a free-kick before half-time. “Barazilia,” swooned the lyrical Al Harban. Iraq cut the lead thanks to Sobhi’s second and threatened an equaliser several times in a storming finish to the match. But it was the under the cosh Kuwaitis who scored a wonderful breakaway goal in the dying seconds, prompting an unforgettable piece of commentary from a hysterical Al Harban.
“Tarabulsi punches clear … comes to Faisal Al Dakhil to Al Anbari … goal!” he screamed presumptuously before Al Anbari had even crossed into the Iraqi half . “Go Anbari, go Anbari, go Anbari, go Anbari.”
His confidence was not misplaced. Three touches and a masterful dink over the advancing Hamoodi later and it was all over. “Goal, goal, goal, goal,” he wept. “Kuwait are Gulf Cup champions.” The Gulf Cup had just had its first truly great moment, and the Kuwait-Iraq rivalry was born.
At that point it, the rivalry was competitive but relatively fair. Both matches had been played in good spirit, the quality of football beyond what the region had previously witnessed, and even what it would produce for years after. The tone of the fixture, however, began to take on sinister tones almost immediately.
Less than three months after the Gulf Cup, on 11 June, Kuwait and Iraq clashed yet again, this time in the semi-final of the 1976 AFC Asian Cup in Tehran. Kuwait took the lead twice through Farouk Ibrahim and Fathi Kameel, and despite missing a penalty, Iraq came roaring back twice through Abdulghalil and Hassan.
Read | How football in the UAE is slowly becoming an international force
Then, in the 10th minute of extra time, Kameel scored the winner for Kuwait as the match descended into ill-discipline. While it was undeniably dramatic, gone was the purity of football seen earlier in the year, replaced by petty fouls, confrontations and stoppages. Cynicism had well and truly set in.
Kuwait, exhausted by their efforts against Iraq, lost the final 1-0 to Asian heavyweights Iran two days later. A fuming Zagallo ripped off his silver medal at the post-match presentation.
The rivalry resumed in 1978, Iraq’s 3-0 at the Asian Games in Bangkok exacting some measure of revenge for the two previous defeats. More drama and political interference was to come as the 1979 Gulf Cup of Nations came to Baghdad for the first time after Abu Dhabi had pulled out of hosting the competition a year earlier.
This time, a new factor was about to be added to the mix. Saddam Hussein was mere months away from officially becoming the president of Iraq, but for all intents and purposes, he had been the de facto leader for years. This was his Gulf Cup.
As everyone suspected, the tournament hinged on one match. On 30 March, Iraq beat Kuwait 3-1, a match notable for being the first time the Blues had tasted defeat in the Gulf Cup. With it being only Iraq’s third match of the tournament and Kuwait’s second, it lacked the intensity and tension of previous matches. Still, it all but confirmed the hosts would lift the trophy in front of their own fans, and of course, vice president.
The competition would not pass without controversy. In his book The Gulf Cup: A Life’s Journey, the Emirati football writer and historian Mohammed Aljoker recalls a bizarre intervention by Saddam Hussein at this increasingly most politicised of tournaments. A few days into the competition, the Iraqi leader called on the participating squads to join in a demonstration against the Camp David Accords, which had taken place in September 1978 and had paved the way for the despised – in the Arab world – peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
“Those present were called on to convene in the hotel’s lobby immediately as Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein asked to address the players and media,” Aljoker said. “So we hurried from our rooms to listen to a very fiery speech by Saddam.” To add to the farcical nature of this call to action, the demonstration never materialised.
In terms of results, Saddam got what he wanted. Iraq were crowned champions, rising star Hussein Saeed finished as top scorer and Hammoudi was voted the best goalkeeper after conceding only one goal. Amo Baba and his men were hailed as heroes.
In Saddam’s Iraq, however, the Sword of Damocles forever hung over its hero footballers. The following year, the country was to hold the final group stage of the 1980 Olympic qualifiers, a mini-league involving Jordan, Syria, Yemen and, of course, Kuwait.
Now managed by Wathiq Naji, the host nation drew 0-0 with their arch rivals, while both completed victories in all their other matches. And on to yet another playoff match, the one that would so displease Saddam.
Read | Syria’s faint hope through football
The 1976 Asian Cup semi-final may have set the early standard for skullduggery between the two nations, but it is easily surpassed by the infamous encounter in Baghdad. The match, on 31 March 1980, turned out to be less a football match than a street brawl. Tackles came late and punches were thrown.
Adil Khudhair’s retaliatory swing to Yaqoub jaw, in full view of Malaysian referee George Joseph, only produced a caution. In the midst of some unspeakable pettiness there was some fine passages of football, excellent goals, and as ever in this fixture, spectacular goalkeeping.
Nizar Ashraf gave Iraq a two-goal lead which they held until the 70th minute. Hammoudi was sensational in Iraq’s goal, saving everything the Kuwaiti forward line could through at him. It looked like Iraq would once again get the better of their rivals.
But this Kuwait team were masters of the late comeback.
A penalty by Yaqoub, a looping header by Nasser Al Ghanem, and an 82nd-minute winner by Yaqoub again gave the Kuwaitis arguably their most famous win over their rivals. In a blue safari suit, Saddam Hussein looked down from the stand, stony-faced. But the result only told half the story.
At the final whistle Joseph was attacked by fans, and things took a sinister turn when, after eventually being escorted to his dressing room by the police, the referee was visited by two local officials.
The excellent Iraqi journalist Hassanin Mubarak has written forensically on this remarkable story: “According to FIFA’s report over the incidents that unfolded after the game, two Iraq FA officials that were later revealed to be Marouf Khadhir and Sabah Mirza entered the referee’s hotel room at around 9.30pm accusing him of taking a bribe from the Kuwaitis and criticising him for awarding the penalty,” Mubarak wrote. “He was slapped and threatened by the two whilst Sabah Mirza fired at the referee with a revolver that grazed his forehead, narrowly missing him.”
The referee eventually left Baghdad in the early hours of the following morning with a broken jaw. In retrospect, FIFA’s subsequent fine of 100,000 francs and a two-year ban on home matches looks absurdly lenient.
As Iraq contemplated a summer at home while their rivals headed to Moscow, luck, in the shape of external politics, would for once come to their aid. Malaysia, who had qualified for the Olympics, became one of the countries that withdrew from the games and were replaced by Iraq.
As a result, both Iraq and Kuwait headed to the Olympic Games in Moscow, boycotted by the US and 64 other nations in protest against the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Keep politics out of sports, indeed.
Read | The 1962 Asian Games: when India conquered the continent
For the two neighbours it was time to focus on football and the first chance to test themselves on the international stage, beyond the limited confines of Gulf, Middle East and Asian football.
Neither Kuwait nor Iraq let their fans down, both finishing second in Groups B and D respectively, ensuring progress to the quarter-finals. On 27 July 1980, Iraq’s Olympic odyssey came to an end with a 4-0 defeat against a strong East German team.
On the same day, Kuwait faced hosts Soviet Union and almost caused the upset of the competition. Down by two goals from Spartak Moscow duo Fyodor Cherenkov and Yuri Gavrilov, the Kuwaitis hit back with a wonderful volley from Yacoub, but could not complete a turnaround. The Kuwaiti centre-forward would later admit that scoring past Rinat Dasayev, one of the world’s best goalkeepers of that era, was one of the highlights of his career.
The match is also remembered for a masterful goalkeeping performance by Al Tarabulsi, one that truly had to be seen to be believed.
Both nations emerged from the Olympics with great credit, but their paths were about to diverge dramatically. In September 1980, less than two months after the end of the Olympics, Kuwait hosted the 1980 AFC Asian Cup and started as one of the favourites. Surprisingly Iraq were not present at the competition. Unsurprisingly, it was due to withdrawal by their FA rather than failure to qualify.
The 10 teams who did make it were split into two groups. Champions Iran topped group A and were joined by North Korea in the semi-finals. Kuwait, despite an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to group B winners South Korea, also progressed to the semis.
Once again, politics would hit hard, this time in truly catastrophic circumstances. Exactly a week into the tournament, Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Iran, igniting a bloody war that would last eight years.
That same night, Iran thrashed Bangladesh 7-0 in Kuwait City, and among the goalscorers was Hassan Roshan, a veteran of the Iranian team that had won the cup four years earlier and that took part in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, and was by then playing for Dubai-based Al Ahli.
It later emerged that his brother was killed in the attack. To make matters worse, the official line of the Kuwaiti government was one of support for neighbours Iraq, ensuring an uncomfortable stay for the Iranian squad who were set to meet the host nation in the semi-final.
Kuwait avenged their 1976 final defeat by beating Heshmat Mohajerani’s men 2-1, setting up another revenge mission against their group conquerors South Korea. The final proved arguably the high mark of this generation of Kuwaiti stars. Roared on by a crowd of over 20,000 at Sabah Al Salem Stadium in the capital city, the home team demolished the Koreans 3-0 with goals from Al Houti and two from Al Dakhil. For the first and, to date, last time, Kuwait were the kings of Asian football.
Read | Carlos Queiroz: the man for a nation
Their dominance was set to continue, especially with Iraq embroiled in a drawn-out conflict and its football team increasingly being shaped by Saddam’s politics. It was no surprise that Iraq pulled out of the qualifying campaign for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
For Kuwait, on the other hand, this would prove another eventful and hugely controversial adventure. Having progressed from their AFC first round group stage, Carlos Alberto Parriera’s men found themselves in the final round-robin qualifying group with New Zealand, China and Saudi Arabia.
The matches against New Zealand would end as two of the most notorious World Cup qualifiers ever contested. The bad blood began before the first clash in Auckland on 10 October 1981. In front of 21,000 fans at Mt Smart Stadium, a banner proclaiming ‘Stick to ya camels’ was astonishingly allowed to be paraded on the pitch.
To say the Kuwaitis were riled would be an understatement, and things did not improve when Steve Woodin gave the home team a 24th-minute lead. The second half ensured that referee Sudarso Hardjowasito would not be forgotten by fans of either team. The Indonesian awarded Kuwait a disputed penalty for handball, which Richard Wilson saved, only for the referee to award a second a few minutes later, again in controversial circumstances.
Play was held up for nine minutes as a pitch invader threw a can at the referee, who in turn threatened to call the match off. Charles Dempsey, a New Zealand FA official, informed Hardjowasito – without authority it turned out – that if he did, it would be the last match he would ever take charge off.
When play resumed, Al Dakhil dispatched the penalty, and to rub salt into New Zealand’s gaping wounds, Yacoub scored a last minute winner. Rumours the referee was bribed – that were never proven – only added to the ill-feeling before the return match in Kuwait.
Responding to the xenophobic taunts they endured in Auckland, the Kuwaitis paraded a herd of camels on the athletics track of Al Qadisiyah Stadium before the kick-off, whipping an already baying capacity crowd of 20,000 into a nationalistic frenzy.
Kameel’s 41st-minute header was overturned within two minutes in the second half. In the 61st-minute, Steve Summer scored s brilliant free-kick that left the usually cat-like Tarabulsi flat-footed. A minute later, New Zealand took the lead through Wynton Rufer, who would go on to play for Norwich, Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern. Kuwait, however, would provide a grand finale, Sami Al Hashash’s last minute header breaking New Zealand hearts yet again.
New Zealand needed to see off China in a playoff to join Kuwait in Spain, but the controversy survives to this day.
Read | The near-misses and future hope of Uzbekistan
Before thoughts could turn to Spain, there was the little matter of the 1982 Gulf Cup in Abu Dhabi, perhaps for the first time an inconvenience for Kuwait. Controversy and disruptions were by this point hardly strangers to this competition.
Kuwait, with the World Cup in mind, sent a shadow squad. Champions Iraq, having beaten Oman, Qatar and the UAE and drawn with Saudi Arabia, pulled out of the competition before their match with Kuwait, in protest at what they saw as biased refereeing. Kuwait, with a weakened team, strolled to their fifth title, even after losing their last match 2-1 to Qatar.
As the World Cup approached, Parreira’s men were on the crest of a wave. The country had embraced the slogan, and accompanying song, ‘Our camel is a winner’.
Already champions of Asia, their greatest generation was expected, perhaps naively in hindsight, to not just perform with pride but deliver results as well. This was not going to be easy in a group that boasted England, France and Czechoslovakia, but their campaign got off to a decent start.
Against Czechoslovakia in Valladolid, they went behind to penalty by Antonín Panenka. Yes, that Panenka, though on the day his was not a trademark Panenka. The Kuwaitis were not overawed one bit and outplayed their opposition, European champions as recently as 1976, for long periods. Al Dakhil scored a hugely deserved equaliser with a brilliant long-range swerving effort.
For a few days, the impossible dream looked on. The nightmare, though, was just around the corner.
Against Michel Hidalgo’s brilliant France in Valladolid, the Kuwaitis were taught a harsh lesson on the realities of football at this level. First half goals Bernard Genghini and Michel Platini, and another by Didier Six just after the break, all but ended the contest. Abdullah Al Buloushi’s header restored some respect to the scoreline and, briefly, even a sliver of hope a miracle could unfold.
What followed was the incident that most fans associate with Kuwaiti football. France scored what looked to be a legitimate goal to put the match to bed. The Kuwaitis claimed offside. To everyone’s utter bewilderment, the head of the Kuwaiti Football Federation, Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmad Al Sabah, gestured to his players to leave the pitch. He then abandoned his seat and made his way down to pitch side to remonstrate with the referee. From the sidelines Parreira watched helplessly as Al Sabah threatened to abandon the match.
Incredibly, the referee was bullied into disallowing the goal, and after French protestations and disbelief, the match restarted with a drop ball. A fourth goal duly arrived from Maxime Bossis in the final minute, but the incident remains one of the more embarrassing fiascos in World Cup history. Kuwait’s campaign, like their reputation, was in tatters.
By the time the players took to the pitch against England at the San Mamés in Bilbao, they looked neutered, almost apologetic to be playing football again. Their performance reflected the mood, Kuwait succumbing to a lone Trevor Francis strike in a thoroughly uneventful match.
The Kuwaiti golden generation was no more. Though a few of the players continued with the national team, others retired. A semi-final in the 1984 AFC Asian Cup and yet another Gulf Cup win in 1986 could not paper over a decline Kuwaiti football has arguably never recovered from.
Read | A hot night in Java: how Iraq won the Asian Cup while war raged at home
The Iraqi golden generation, however, still had life in it. The 1984 Gulf Cup was won in Muscat, Oman, and though they failed to reach the Asian Cup that year, they reached the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The best was yet to come, though as usual, not without pain and suffering. By that point, Iraqi football was at the mercy of the egomaniacal whims of Uday Hussein, who had been appointed head of the country’s football association in 1984. As fear and loathing pervaded Iraqi football, the national team somehow managed to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. And they did it by the skin of their teeth.
In the first of two playoff ties, they faced a fast-improving UAE team and beat them 3-2 in Dubai. With a FIFA ban on home games still in effect thanks to the ongoing war with Iran, Iraq hosted the second leg at King Fahd Stadium in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, as favourites.
The UAE took a two-goal lead, enough to see them through to the final playoff round, into injury time. With Emirati fans prematurely celebrating what would have been their finest football hour by some distance, Karim Menshid scored with the last kick of the game to ensure progress for Iraq and despair for the UAE.
Having pulled off a minor miracle in such dramatic circumstances, Iraq expectedly overcame Syria 3-1 over two politically-charged legs to reach Mexico 1986.
Iraq’s World Cup adventure was far less dramatic than Kuwait’s. Though it was, of course, not without controversy. Mere weeks before heading off to Mexico, Brazilian coach Edu was sacked after only one match on the orders of Uday Hussein and replaced by countryman Evaristo de Macedo, who had achieved success in Qatar.
And to the anger of Iraqi fans, Iraq’s iconic green and white strips were replaced by yellow and blue kits, the former being the colour of Uday’s club Al Rasheed. “The change of colour irritated many of the players,” Mubarak wrote for Ahdaaf.me. “Years later, one player was quoted as saying ‘we felt alienated dressed in yellow and we considered the sky blue as a heavy burden on us’.”
In Mexico, the new colours did not bring Iraq good fortune. Trailing by a goal to Paraguay, the Iraqis thought they had equalised on the stroke of half-time, Ahmed Radhi heading in from a corner. However, Mauritian referee Edwin Picon-Ackong had ridiculously blown his whistle to end the first period a split second after the corner had been taken. The Iraqis argued in vain.
Iraq did not disgrace themselves in Mexico, though they were uninspiring throughout. They lost their second match 2-1 to Belgium and their third to the host nation 1-0. At least they had the consolation of playing at the majestic Azteca in Mexico City in front of 103,000 fans.
It’s tempting to say that Iraq’s golden generation, like Kuwait’s, reached the end of its journey at the World Cup finals. In truth, the 1986 team barely resembled the classic line-up of the late 1970s and early 80s.
Read | UAE: a journey to the unknown at Italia 90
As the 1980s drew to a close, both Iraq and Kuwait had been surpassed by Saudi Arabia, who had won the AFC Asian Cup in 1984 and 1988, and the UAE, who pulled of the astonishing feat of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Little of this would be of any consequences as the new decade began. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait after a long-running dispute over oil production and prices. Both countries continue to suffer the consequences decades later.
Today, when Kuwait and Iraq are mentioned in the same breath, it is rarely to remember their great football rivalry. After the war ended in 1991, politics took hold of football in both countries more than ever, and to varying degrees.
In Kuwait, the post-war years brought unprecedented governmental interference in the football association’s affairs. “After the invasion and the death of Sheikh Ahmad, things became different,” said Bishara. “Politics surreptitiously invaded the sporting arena, chiefly football.”
Meanwhile in Iraq, Uday Hussein’s reign of terror was well and truly under way, with stories emerging after his death of players being tortured for underperforming or losing matches. It is to Iraqi football’s eternal credit that despite the untold misery of two wars, sectarian violence and the continuous handicap of not playing at home, its national team has continued to find a way to prosper.
In their 2009 book Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained, journalist Simon Kuper and sports economist Stefan Szymanski identified Iraq as the most overachieving football nation in the world. “The country that stands out most given what it has to work with is Iraq,” they concluded from statistics collected between 1980 and 2001. “If the country ever sorts itself out, then watch out, world.”
Indeed, Iraq qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and again for Rio 2016, no mean achievements as the country remains some way from comprehensively sorting itself out. Above all, there was the miracle of Jakarta. In 2007, against seemingly insurmountable odds, and as violence raged in their home country, Iraq’s footballers won the Asian Cup by defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final. The Lions of Mesopotamia achieved this with a team made out of Sunni, Shia and Kurds, sparking celebrations across the war-ravaged country.
It is undeniably Iraq’s finest moment, and arguably one of the greatest football triumphs of all time.
Kuwait bounced back in the second half of the decade, winning the Gulf Cup in 1996 and 1998. But talk of a second golden generation was premature; it was a brief, superficial recovery. Today, Kuwait are a pariah football state.
It seems that Iraq, despite themselves, can’t help but produce quality footballers who thrive against the odds A promising new golden generation is always threatening to emerge. Kuwait, on the other hand, look set for a long wait before the glory days of the 1970s and 80s are back
By Ali Khaled @AliKhaled_