Insider Blog: A Toast to Iraq

There are only two weeks left in the year 2007, and for quite some time, I’ve been thinking about what my soccer highlight of the year has been.

Having moved back to Canada earlier in the year, I always knew that this was going to be an important 12 months in the history of the sport in this country. For all my hopes for Canadian soccer this year, the end result was progress and setback. The revelation that was Toronto FC and its fans and the first-class staging of the FIFA U-20 World Cup are things to be immensely proud of. However, the woes of the Canadian Soccer Association through its internal strife was nothing short of depressing, and those in charge must aim to change things quickly, if it wants to restore any amount of credibility amongst a cynical Canadian soccer public.

I would have also liked the choice of a highly memorable moment from the 2007 Whitecaps season, but as many of you well know, there were few highlights to pick out. The obvious bright spot had to be the Los Angeles Galaxy friendly in early November, just for the sheer fact that nearly 50,000 people attended the game on two-and-a-half weeks notice, and that David Beckham made a decent run-out against our lads. I really hope the enthusiasm we all saw at BC Place translates to what could a special and unique 2008 season for the club.

Despite the topics that I have mentioned, my soccer moment of the year has come from this past summer and the AFC Asian Cup, where the game witnessed a modern-day sporting miracle. So rare was this achievement that I doubt any of us may see something like this again in soccer in our lifetime, though I do hope that is not the case….

Until last July, the first thought for most people about the country of Iraq was a land torn apart by war, terrorism, and civil strife. Death and violence always seemed to go hand-in-hand with news headlines from the country, and over time, the world can be forgiven for being left with negative feelings about the Middle Eastern nation. In fact, it was commendable enough that the Iraqis had succeeded in qualifying for the Asian Cup finals, but few would have expected much from the squad known as The Lions of Mesopotamia.

Led by Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, Iraq were initially drawn in Group A with co-hosts Thailand, powerhouse Australia, and IrqMiddle Eastern rivals Oman. The Iraqis actually took part in the tournament’s opening match in Bangkok, and it was their inspirational captain Younis Mahmoud who earned Iraq a 1-1 draw. However, the result that likely made the soccer world stand up and take notice was Iraq’s second group game when they defeated Australia’s SoccerRoos 3-1. It was a result that propelled Iraq to win the group after an uneventful goalless draw with Oman and remain in Bangkok for the quarterfinals to face another co-host in Vietnam. In that contest, skipper Mahmoud led by example again, as Iraq disposed of their South East Asian opponents 2-0 and set up a semifinal clash with Far East giants South Korea in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

It had been a ‘feel good’ story to this stage, but at the time, I could not see how Iraq was going to overcome one of Asia’s most powerful national teams. Sheer guts and will were needed by Iraq at this stage, and after 120 minutes of goalless soccer action with The Taeguk Warriors, the game went to penalties. Inspiration and fortune remained with Vieira’s men, as Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri made a crucial save in a 4-3 shootout victory that took his country into its first Asian Cup final appearance.

As amazing as that was, I still had my doubts that the Iraqi fairytale would conclude in tournament triumph. Yasser Al Qahtani had been prolific in front of goal for Saudi Arabia, and his side looked to have more than enough quality to win the final in Jakarta, Indonesia….Happily for me, I was wrong again.

I wonder now if July 29 will be a date remembered by Iraqis for all time, and if Mahmoud’s decisive second-half header against the Saudis actually catapulted Vieira’s squad into the annals of world sporting history. Of course, there have been accolades recently awarded to Iraq’s national team. The squad claimed World Soccer magazine’s World Team of the Year and Asia’s National Team of the Year awards, but for me, their achievement went beyond any of the silverware they have received.

To have Iraq written in a positive light for once and to see the celebrations in the streets of Baghdad and Basra that day left me with a great feeling about our game and sport in general. The financial resources that some clubs and national teams have does not always translate into success. Association football still requires guts and determination to win top-class competitions, and in the most heart-warming of ways, the most politically chaotic of nations gave us all a lesson in pride and passion when you represent your country in sport. Not only that, Iraq reminded us all that teams are equal when they step out on to the soccer pitch to face each other.

By the time Iraq were crowned Asian champions, I knew the remaining five months of the year would not likely have anything as positive and significant in soccer then what was seen in South East Asia this past July….may we all be blessed again with a similar experience in the future.

On that bright and cheerful note, I would like to wish all Whitecaps fans a happy and safe holiday season, as well as happy and prosperous 2008.

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