A hot night in Java: how Iraq won the Asian Cup while war raged at home

A hot night in Java: how Iraq won the Asian Cup while war raged at home

AS WE WALKED into the Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia on 29 July 2007, expectations were not high, but at least we had an exit strategy in place. Having taken a cab from the Four Seasons hotel, we simply told the driver to hang out for the length of the match and assured him we would take care of him when we got back to the hotel safely. “No worries,” said the cabbie. He knew we would return; finding a cab at 10pm in this part of the city would be impossible even for a local, and we were glaringly white.

My companions were a set of Aussies I had met through work in Jakarta who were always up for an adventure, so when I had asked if they were interested in a football match their only question was, “Is there beer involved?” 

“I certainly hope so, the football is likely to be shit,” I retorted. I could not have been more wrong.

The 2007 version of the Asian Cup was a unique affair, hosted by four separate countries – Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. This would prove to be a difficult tournament to administer, as each country had its own press briefing area, its own headquarters, and many other centralised facilities necessary for such a tournament that were replicated across the four countries.

What seemed like a great idea at the time – a major tournament held in four separate countries that could spread the financial load, open new markets and bring major football to places that otherwise would never be able to host something like this – turned into a four week battle of attrition against the tropical heat that felled many of the big teams of the confederation.

Chinese head coach Zhu Guanghu, whose side would fall well short of their target of making the last four, was so conscious of the climate that he prepared specifically with it in mind. “You may notice more players from southern cities are on the list,” he pointed out before the tournament. “We have to find players who can get used to the sultry south-east Asian climate much more easily.”

The successful World Cup of 2002 which had been shared by Korea and Japan had emboldened the football community of smaller nations to band together in their bids to host  larger events. The 2007 Asian Cup, however, was perhaps too ambitious. Mohammed Bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation at the time, hed been a proponent of the four-nation bid and was later quoted as saying he would “definitely not do it again”.

The qualified nations were as diverse as any tournament ever held. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran headlined the Middle Eastern contingent, Uzbekistan represented Central Asia, South Korea, China and Japan came from the Far East and Australia made its debut from the South. All four host nations were automatically entered, while unfancied gulf nations Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq completed the line-up.

Australia had entered after leaving the Oceania confederation for more competition and better World Cup qualification opportunities, while Oman made only its second appearance, having debuted three years earlier. It had been decided to move the tournament’s schedule from Olympic years to the odd-year before the global athletics Games, hence the shorter three-year period between the 2004 and 2007 editions.

Jakarta was hot that July, searing over 30 degrees every day. High humidity made the days and nights sticky and draining. It was even hotter in the other host cities, especially Bangkok and Hanoi. Many of the region’s powerhouses such Japan, Korea and Australia were taken out as much by the attrition of playing match after match in oppressive conditions as they were by the quality of the opponent.

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The group stages saw some real drama and unexpected results. Australia barely scraped a draw in their opening match with an injury time goal from Tim Cahill to save it late for the Socceroos against Oman. 

Iraq put the spurs to Australia in the second group match, stunning their illustrious opponents 3-1 in a shock that showed the vulnerability of the countries who weren’t prepared to play in the extreme heat of the tropical monsoon climate. Iraq was a team effectively without a country, theirs having been occupied by the American and Allied forces who were waging the war on terror. Many of the players had not seen their home in years.

Meanwhile in Hanoi, the hosts pulled a big upset over Middle East champions UAE. Vietnam were one of the biggest surprises of the tournament as they put enough together to make it through the group stage and qualify for the knockout round, finishing ahead of UAE and Qatar.

Group C showed the roller coaster of international football, with China grinding out a draw against an Iran outfit who would look stronger as the tournament went on, yet failed to show much life against Uzbekistan, slumping to a 3-0 loss. Malaysia ended up being the worst side in the tournament with no points and a single goal scored, leaving with a goal difference of -11. Uzbekistan and Iran would represent Group C in the knockout phase.

Group D went off pretty much as expected as Saudi Arabia finished atop the group with their outstanding striker Yasser Al-Qahtani scoring in their first two group stage matches. Despite falling to a late winner from Bahrain’s Ismail Abdul-Latif in their second game, South Korea too went through without much fuss, while Indonesia and Bahrain were left to watch the knockout stage from the sidelines.

In the first round of the knockout phase, a truly great matchup was drawn between two giants of Asian football as three-time champions Iran took on 2002 World Cup semi-finalists South Korea. In a real corker, the legendary Korean defence had to play at their very best to keep the attacking wizardry of Iran from scoring in 120 minutes of outrageously intense football. When the clock finally drew the match to a close the exhausted Iranians had clearly run out of gas and their penalty kicks suffered. Three missed kicks later, they had lost the shootout 4-2 and Korea would move to the semi-finals. A beaten Iran would lay in ruins on the pitch, trying to figure out what had hit them. 

In Hanoi the night before, a similar story had played out for the Socceroos against the mighty Japan. Neither team had been able to find the net in two exhausting hours of sweat-drenched play, and by the time they reached the penalty shootout, it was as if the players were walking through a dream. The heat and humidity were certainly taking their toll on players from both sides, but the Japanese came away with a narrow 4-3 victory. 

In Bangkok it was Iraq who proved their mettle by taking the initiative and driving Vietnam out of the tournament just two minutes into the match. The Iraqis were ruthless and dominant as Younis Mahmoud’s double secured a comfortable passage to the semi-final. 

Once again, Yasser Al-Qahtani was on the scoresheet for Saudi Arabia in their match with Uzbekistan. It was 2-0 before the Uzbeks mounted anything resembling a challenge, and despite them pulling a goal back with eight minutes to go it was the Saudis who would progress.

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The first semi-final featured Iraq and South Korea in the Bukit Jalil stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in another smouldering evening affair between sides not necessarily used to the combination of heat and humidity. 

The match was a sluggish affair as Iraq needed a perfect performance from the spot to edge past their resolute opponents and reach their first Asian Cup final. One of the last remaining favourites was out, but unfortunately the historic victory was marred by tragedy at home. Two separate terror attacks claimed the lives of 50 civilians as authorities in Iraq declared that the bombings had been directed at revellers celebrating the Iraq victory in Bangkok.

In the second semi-final, contested in Hanoi, Japan and Saudi Arabia were battling it out for the other spot in the final. Japan was used to reaching the lofty heights in this competition having won the previous two competitions, but it had been 11 years since Saudi Arabia had been champions.

This match was a wide open affair with five goals between the sides, Saudi Arabia finally ending up on top of a pinball affair. Once again it was Yasser Al-Qahtani for the Saudis who proved to be the difference as his strike in the 35th minute broke the deadlock and started the cavalcade of goals.

The stage was set. It was an unusual final for an Asia Cup with two teams from the Middle East; not since 1996 in the UAE had two countries from the region had faced off in the final, when Saudi Arabia beat the hosts.

The final moved to the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, the Javanese city of countless numbers. Some say the population is 25 million; some say it is many more. What is certain is that Jakarta is a city of utter chaos, with scooters revving their engines to ungodly levels, and entire families riding on a single motorcycle with the littlest one riding on the handlebars.

Jakarta was an ancient trading post for the Spice Islands, first settled by the Dutch and known as Batavia. The old canals and city centre of Batavia stand today as a reminder of colonial rule. Indonesia is not so much a country as a huge archipelago comprised of some 800 islands – and nearly as many languages – stretching from Sumatra in the west to well past Bali in the east. It is the most populous Islamic country in the world, with over 300 million Indonesians calling Islam their faith.

As we walked into the stadium that night, none of us knew what to expect. It was built as an athletics venue with fairly shallow stands, which left the crowd with a feeling of being a long way from the action, but what we soon discovered was that we were seated in a small section of Iraqi ex-pats living in Indonesia; out of a stadium that holds over 60,000 fans, we were stuck right smack in the middle of the Iraqi ultras section.

The rest of the crowd was decidedly split between two groups – the Saudi princes who had flown in just for this event and locals who just wanted to see a match. There being a testy relationship between Indonesia and the Saudis over the treatment of domestic workers, it was not a surprise that the neutrals were all cheering for Iraq.

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Just as we sat down a beer vendor showed up, so we duly bought him out of his stock and thought we had made it clear through tipping and a few well-placed words that if he kept the alcohol flowing we should make him a very rich man. Apparently his quota was to sell one tray of beer and we never saw him again, much to my Australian friends’ dismay. 

Before the match started we had the opportunity to chat to our seat mates supporting Iraq, who had fled the country when war was inevitable, living with friends or relatives until they could figure out what was going to become of their homes. For them, the match against Saudi Arabia was more than just a game – it was almost a proxy war. They pointed out the sheikhs in their robes who had flown in for the match with disgust. They wanted to give some measure of humiliation to the Saudis, if not on the battlefield then on that pitch that night. This was much bigger than football.

The stadium was surrounded by a three-metre tall fence with guards wielding 4mm round sticks patrolling everywhere to intimidate anyone who looked like they might start trouble. Speaking to one of the guards I asked him who employed them, and he told me they were military, brought in especially for the match in case of terrorism – a thought I hadn’t given much credence to until that moment. 

After all of the pre-match festivities were complete, of which we saw none, and understood even less, it was time to get the final underway; the underdog Iraqi side, the side without a country, against the most well-funded national side in the world. 

The opening 20 minutes were very much like two heavyweight boxers in the early rounds of a title fight, tentative and feeling each other out, with neither side committing fully to the offensive. During one attack by the Iraqi side, the Saudi keeper Yasser Al Mosailem went down as if he had been stabbed in the back with an axe. When the replay went up on the big screen, which showed he was never even touched, the crowd began to ride him relentlessly. 

By the end of the first half, the tension had mounted to a fever pitch as the sides were getting physical and frustrated. Tempers were boiling over and something had to break.

That break came in the 72nd minute when Younis Mahmoud, the greatest Iraqi international of all-time, took a slashing strike from the top of the box and nailed it to the back of the Saudi net, drawing him level with Al-Qhatani for the Golden Boot award. Our section was in utter chaos. Mahmoud ran directly over to where we were seated and climbed the fence to show his love for the few hundred Iraqi nationals that had made it to the match. 

Younis Mahmoud is a legend in Iraq as the country’s only footballer ever to make it on the Ballon d’Or list, finishing 29th in 2007. He was the captain of the Iraq national team for 10 straight years and once even scored a double hat-trick in the Qatar league. Mahmoud retired in 2016 as the most capped player in the country’s history.

Until the end of the match, all Iraq could do was hang on to the single goal lead. Al-Qhatani was relentless in attack, but Iraq were up to the challenge. They were crowned champions of Asia that night 10 years ago in a final for the ages. 

In a sad denouement, the newly-crowned champions were invited to Brunei to celebrate their victory, whereupon the Sultan greeted them with the incorrect national anthem – a slight that the proud Iraqis did not take too well. This black mark aside, nothing could be taken away from their on-field performances. It was nothing short of breathtaking; a team without a country, conquering their confederation in style against an ancient rival, in Younis Mahmoud’s finest hour – but a spectacle and backdrop I hope we do not see repeated.

By Jim Hart @Catenacciari

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