Been in the mix since ’86
Basil Gorgis is a football player carried the game in Iraq to new heights. As an attacking midfielder in the Eighties, he embodied finesse, tenacity, and fair play. His passion for the game is a true testament to the deep love affair that exists between Iraqis and football.
We first met up with Gorgis in Toronto, Canada in 2004. At the time, he was living there with his family after a long and familiar journey that had taken many Iraqis like himself across long distances into new homes and migrant communities. He had decided to move to Canada twelve years earlier when he was offered a contract to play for the Winnipeg Fury, a professional team that no longer exists.
Like all other immigrants, he was a hard worker, fighting to secure a future for his wife and three daughters. Gorgis’ service to club and country were virtually uncompensated, and he had little money to show for all the years he played football in Iraq. In Toronto, he became part owner of an Iraqi restaurant in the north of the city, and worked as a wholesaler of discounted long distance calling cards. In Toronto, Gorgis was unknown; just another person trying to make ends meet. But for Iraqis who spotted him in Diaspora, he was a living legend, walking amongst commoners in a surreal display of displacement.
Since this interview, Gorgis has made a return to the floodlights of Iraqi football. Flicking away the doldrums of winter, he returned to the game, this time as part of coaching setup at the national team in 2012, first under the Brazilian legend turned coach Zico, and later with the Iraqi coaching sensation Hakeem Shaker. Gorgis moved back to Iraqi football, and wants to be the first Iraqi to take the country to the World Cup as both a player, a feat he accomplished in 1986, and as a coach, something he aspires to achieve for the upcoming World Cup in Brazil.
The LeagueQ: How early did football feature in your life? A: As a child, the only thing that meant anything to me was football. I played day and night, on the streets of Ankawa, a small town in Erbil province. I remember how my cousin used to always tell my mother that Basil is going to be a star. From a young age, football taught me about life. Through winning and losing, I learned about compassion. As I grew older, football gave me the gift of other people’s love, and that remained to be my driving force throughout my life. Q: When did you make the transition from the streets to professional football? A: As a teenager, I played with the young Homentmen team. It was a team that belonged to the Armenian community in Iraq. After that, I moved to another junior side, Tammuz, part of the Assyrian Club (Nadi Al Athori). I was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time. It was while I was playing with Tammuz, that Mustafa Auda, a coach from Al Amana, a big club from Baghdad noticed me.
He selected me to play for the Al Amana youth side. The club was particularly known for the strength of its youth sides, so this was a great opportunity for me. And I was going to play football in Baghdad, the capital city. At Al Amana, I got the chance to play alongside players like Natiq Hashim, the brothers Kareem and Khalil Allawi, and Ghanim Al Oraybi, all of whom would play a tremendous role in the future success of Iraqi football.Q: How was playing in a club different than playing football on the streets? A: At Al Amana, the play was much more physical than anything I have ever seen. During practices, I would get kicked in the shins, and scratched and poked by other players fighting for the ball. That taught me to be a strong and tough player, and that was very important for my game, because I was a midfielder, and that is a physically demanding position.
Having a professional coaching staff and permanent teammates was also important. They were very supportive and encouraging. They played a critical role in me getting a call up to the national team one year later. On the national team, I played alongside the likes of legendary players like Falah Hassan. I continued playing for Al Amana for several before I was part of a group of players that moved to another Baghdad club: Al Shabab.
The National TeamQ: When you finally earned your first cap for the Iraqi national team, how was playing at that level different to playing football at the club level? A: My first game with the Iraqi national team was in 1981. We were playing in Baghdad, at the Shaab Stadium against Jordan. For the first few minutes, it was very overbearing, but after that, playing for the national team was a truly amazing experience. In general, the international game is much more demanding than league play, and it carries a lot more responsibility with it. The crowd is unified in its support, and the fans don’t split down club lines. The whole country is behind you. Q: One of your early successes with the national team was when Iraq won the Arab Cup in 1985 in Morocco. What do you remember from the tournament? A: The Iraqi football federation wanted to send the B team to the tournament, but Anwar Jassam, the coach at the time, wanted to add five players from the first squad to strengthen our participation. The coach chose Ahmed Radhi, Sameer Kadhum, Raad Hamoudi, Khalil Allawi, and myself.
The selection proved to be very successful, and we did very well in the opening rounds of the tournament. We made it to the final, and we were set to meet the hosts. At the time, Morocco was playing world class football, and boasted some top names in their starting lineup. On the other hand, we were playing with the B team. Nonetheless, we were very confident.
In the final, I was actually the one who scored. It was off a header from a corner that sent the ball into the top corner of the goal in the first nine minutes. I remembered Raad Hammoudi, our goalkeeper came up to me and said, “Why did you have to score so early? This is going to make them angry, and they have a great team!” Despite the pressure they laid on us for the rest of the game, the home field advantage, and even the presence of their King, we beat the Moroccans in the final.
The World CupQ: Up next for you was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. It was the first and only time that Iraq has played in the big tournament, and you were part of the team that made it happen. How did it feel to qualify? A: We were all very confident going into the critical game against Syria in Taif, Saudi Arabia. We were all very confident, and our squad had great depth. We were all really familiar with each other. We had been playing with each for a long time. In that game, I played a critical role in all three goals that Iraq scored that day.
Qualifying to the World Cup was a dream come true. We were ecstatic. Even our Brazilian coach Evaristo was crying. We landed in Baghdad that night at three in the morning, but despite the late arrival, there were tens of thousands people waiting for us at the airport. There were thousands of people in the Streets of Al Mansour and Al Rashid Street in Baghdad. Everyone in Iraq was celebrating.Q: At the World Cup, you were drawn in a group with the host nation, Mexico, Belgium, who eventually finished fourth in the tournament, and South American giants Paraguay. In light of this difficult group, what were your thoughts leading up to the tournament? A: A few days after we qualified, the coach called a team meeting at the University of Baghdad. He told us that he only had two months to prepare us for the tournament, and the only thing he could do during this short period of time was to take us to a level where we wouldn’t lose by more than one goal. He told us that we couldn’t win, that we could only lose. And that’s exactly what happened.
We need to give coaches a much longer time to work with a team and take them to a level where they are ready to compete at a tournament like the World Cup. Our football association was not interested in football. We need to learn from African teams who have tremendous success on the international scene. They have players that play in top European clubs, and their national teams are given the chance to play with much more established teams in international friendly matches. Even if they lose, they play and learn.Q: So how did the Iraqi national team prepare for the tournament? A: We went to Brazil a few weeks before the tournament in Mexico, where we had a horrible training camp. We were there to supposedly preparing for the World Cup, but we ended up playing local non professional teams in mediocre facilities. Instead, England had wanted to pay us to play them at Wembley Stadium in London. The English had drawn Morocco in their World Cup group, and our similar style of play and recent successes against the North Africans grabbed their attention. But Uday (Saddam’s Son and head of the Football Association at the time) didn’t want to lose, so he refused the friendly with England.
Even Brazil wanted to play us, but Uday refused. I say let us play them, even if we lose, let’s go and learn from these guys. Uday used to tell us ‘What’s the difference between you and the Brazilian player? You wear Adidas shoes and he wears Adidas shoes.” It was a joke. The best preparation we got was when we played against Brazilian giants Flamengo. We lost 3-1.Q: Why did the Iraqi team wear blue and yellow in the World Cup, as opposed to their traditional green and white uniforms? A: It was Uday. Even Evaristo was astounded by the decision and didn’t understand why we would have to do that. He just turned to me and said: “your football association doesn’t like you.”