Basil Gorgis

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 League

Q: 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.

Basil Gorgis

Basil Gorgis (first from the left) in action against a crucial 1986 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Syria.

Al Amana was founded in 1957 by the Public Transit Department. It is currently known as Baghdad FC.

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.

Al Shabab, is the Arabic word for youth, and is a Baghdad based club founded in 1951.
Q: For the last two years, since the American occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi football league has been suspended. What impact do you think that will have on the game in Iraq? A: First and foremost, with no league, there is no national team. The domestic game has so many naturally talented players and excellent coaches, and that is what drives our abilities to be a good football nation on the international level. Although the league has only been fully suspended in the last year, it hasn’t been operating effectively for much longer than that. Despite that, the Iraqi league still has tremendous potential to this day.

The Iraqi football league kicked off in 1962 with Baghdad based teams only. In 1974, it expanded to be a nationwide competition.
Q: During your time in the Iraqi league, you scored many goals. Was there one that stood out over the rest? A: During my last year with Al Talaba, we made it to the league cup final against Al Shorta. The game was very intense and the referee awarded me a penalty kick. Over fifty thousand fans had packed into the Shaab Stadium, and the goalkeeper opposite me was Emad Hashim. He was the keeper for the national team, so he was familiar with the way that I took my spot kicks, as he had seen me take them several times during practice. That made the kick so much more difficult to take, and it was such an important one. But I switched to the other side, and managed to get the ball in. I know it is a penalty kick, but it was always my favorite goal during my time in the league in Iraq.

Al Talaba, which means ‘Students’ in Arabic, was founded in 1969 to represent the University of Baghdad. The Police Club, Al Shorta, is one of the oldest football clubs in Iraq, being founded in 1938.

Basil Gorgis

The National Team

Q: 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 Cup

Q: 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.

Iraq is the only team to ever qualify for the FIFA World Cup without playing any qualification matches at home.

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.

Iraq lost all three games in the FIFA 1986 World Cup against Mexico, Belgium, and Paraguay.

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.”

End of an era

Q: You played under both national and foreign coaches, who do you think is better for Iraqi football now? A: Foreign coaches who have a lot of experience can add a lot to the Iraqi national team. We don’t regard foreign coaches as being foreigners. While they are with us, they are Iraqi. But having said that, the ground that Iraqi coaching legend Ammu Baba touches is holy.

Q: You played football in Iraq during a time when Uday, Saddam’s son, terrorized the sporting community. Tell us more about your experiences, and how that impacted your time in the game? A: That is a cliché question, because the answers are clear. He was a thug. The overall environment surrounding athletes, and football players in particular, was horrible. When Uday first came onto the political scene in Iraq, he wasn’t that involved in the game. But as the Eighties progressed, he got more and more obstructive. I remember once in the 1988 Gulf Cup, we were playing Qatar in Saudi Arabia, and the weather was very hot and humid. The weather conditions really affected the way we played, especially in the first half. During the intermission, he made a telephone call into the dressing room and threatened us with physical abuse and sending us to the front lines of the war. In the second half, we played much better, but it had nothing to do with him. We were just a good team and knew how to adjust our game under different conditions. We won eventually won the tournament. But because of instances like that, he thought that his bully tactics were working.

Q: Why did you retire? A: I didn’t. I was forced out at the age of thirty. The circumstances in the country were unbearable. In 1992, I left to play for the Winnipeg Fury in Canada. But the Iraqi football association refused to give me an official release. Because of that, I wasn’t allowed to play in the Canadian league, and my days in football were effectively over. At the time, my brothers were living in Canada, and convinced me to immigrate there, so I did. At the end of all of the hard work, I don’t even have a video tape of a retirement game that I can show my kids.