A look ahead at Iraq’s football participation in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

A football pitch surrounded by palm trees, along the banks of Shatt Al Arab in Basra, Iraq. Photo courtesy of <a href=

A football pitch surrounded by palm trees, along the banks of Shatt Al Arab in Basra, Iraq. Photo courtesy of Nawar Tamawi.

You can fit 92,000 football fields between Baghdad and Rio de Janeiro, host of the upcoming summer Olympic games, but the staggering distance between them is just a number. Corruption, constant attacks on democracy and a crumbling infrastructure are just some of the ways the two cities are twins in a deeply dysfunctional, yet resilient, family of communities around the world.

Rio and Baghdad, giants in their own right, are connected for better or worse. They are part of a growing list of metropolises who are struggling for their existence in the face of constant violence, waged in varying degrees, from police brutality in the favelas of Brazil, to outright genocide waged by fighter jets roaring in the skies of Iraq.

Baghdad, once the largest city in the world, steeped in Mesopotamian history, and Rio de Janeiro, a city that continues to capture the imagination of the world with its beaches, counter culture and breathtaking scenes, are also united in life, over death. They are both cultural hubs in their respective regions, constantly producing music, poetry and dance. So when the Iraqi men’s football team takes to the pitch in the Rio games this month, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

On their way to stadium in Brazil, Iraqi players will pass scenes of children taking to the streets to play and dream, just like they would in cities like Basra and Kirkuk. Both countries suffer from an incurable affliction brought from their insatiable love for the beautiful game. When Iraq’s young players line up against the gold and green uniforms of the Brazilian seleção, they will find themselves sharing a field with players and a team that they have idolized and heard of ever since they were kids kicking around a makeshift ball on a dirt pitch. For 90 minutes, a love story between two peoples, two teams, two cities, will play itself out to the sounds of thousands of fans in the stadium, and millions of beating hearts glued to TV sets around the world.

Iraq beat Qatar in the third place playoff game of the Asian under 23 competition to qualify for the Rio games.

Amidst the circus of the Olympic games, where governments bend over backwards to divert public funds and space into the pockets of corporate crooks, Iraqi and Brazilian fans will have a lot to talk about in between the football. They can share notes on how the capitalist wrecking crew that comes with war and international sporting events is one and the same. They can dissect the legacy of colonialism on their ability to control their own natural resources.

In fact, for most Iraqis around the world, their team’s participation in Rio has very little to do with football. To begin with, the men’s football tournament at the Olympic games is a third tier international competition, ranked behind the World Cup and continental tournaments like the Copa America and the Asian Cup. In footballing sense, it is not afforded the same respect as other competitions. It is still regarded, however, as an opportunity for younger players to gain much needed experience, something of great value to a country like Iraq, as it sets its eyes on qualifying to the next World Cup.

For Iraqi fans, the Rio games mean something much more substantial to them than the score. This participation comes against a backdrop of destruction and desperation. It has been only a month since a devastating explosion shook the heart of Baghdad, killing more than 300 young shoppers in a mall, most of whom would have probably tuned in to the tournament to cheer for their team.

Amidst the carnage, the football tournament will offer a chance, yet again, for the beautiful game to elevate the imagination of Iraqis above the sectarian suffocation they face, and allow them to dream of a vibrant community, enriched by the achievements of its people, and not defined by the firing power of its militias. It is a stretch, of course, to think that football, on its own, can overcome the ills of war and occupation, or reverse the repugnant stench of ISIS, but for 90 minutes, reality will be suspended, and the players of Iraq will take their rightful place as untouchable gods in the skies of Iraqi communities, from Mosul to Melbourne.

In the 2004 Athens Olympics, Iraq took the tournament by surprise and finished fourth, dismantling Portugal along the way.

DREAMS OF A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

Iraq Conquers Athens - 2004The last time Iraq’s football team played in the Olympic games was in Athens, in 2004. In that tournament, the “Lions of Mesopotamia,” as their fans love to the call them, surprised the world, and finished fourth, losing in the bronze medal match to a talented Italian team. Along the way, they even took apart a strong Portuguese side, bolstered by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, with a memorable 4-2 win. The cities of Iraq were lit with hope, a momentous occasion that came in the face of American troops roaming the streets, sowing the seeds of division and setting the stage for the country’s complete collapse.

Twelve years later, the situation in Iraq has actually worsened. When the games will be broadcast to fans across the Atlantic, millions of destroyed lives will haunt the night, and a country violently divided along false lines, will passionately fly its flag, cheering for a team that unites and inspires, something that Iraqis don’t see very much of. The country is also in the grips of a record breaking heat wave exacerbated by an anemic electric supply and a health system barely fit for humans.

This year, the Iraqis are in the same group as powerhouses and hosts Brazil, emboldened by the likes of Neymar, along with Denmark and a young Bafana Bafana side from South Africa. The tournament will be a test for a group of young athletes balancing the challenges on the pitch with the pressures of fulfilling the dreams of millions of fans who will desperately pit their hopes on a game of football.


IRAQ’S SQUAD FOR THE 2016 RIO GAMES


GOALKEEPER

– Fahad Talib, 21 years old, Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Iraq)
– Mohammed Hameed, 23 years old, Naft Al Wasat (Iraq)

DEFENDER

– Ahmed Ibrahim, 24 years old, no club affiliation
– Hawbir Khasro, 22 years old, Maastricht (Holland)
– Mustafa Nadhim, 22 years old, Naft Al Wast (Iraq)
– Ali Faez, 21 years old, Rizespor (Turkey)
– Ali Adnan, 22 years old, Udinese (Italy)
– Saad Natiq, 22 years old, Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Iraq)
– Dhurgham Ismael, 22 years old, Rizespor (Turkey)
– Alaa Mhawi, 20 years old, Al Zawraa (Iraq)

MIDFIELDER

– Mahdi Kamil, 21 years old, Al Shorta (Iraq)
– Ali Hosny, 22 years old, Rizespor (Turkey)
– Humam Tareq, 20 years old, Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Iraq)
– Saad Abdulameer, 24 years old, Al Qadsiya (Saudi Arabia)
– Amjed Atwan, 19 years old, Al Shorta (Iraq)

FORWARD

– Hammadi Ahmed, 26 years old, Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Iraq)
– Mohanad Abdulraheem, 22 years old, Al Zawraa (Iraq)
– Sherko Kareem, 20 years old, Grasshoppers (Switzerland)


IRAQ AT THE MEN’S OLYMPIC FOOTBALL TOURNAMENT


Iraq Olympic Football Team

1980 – MOSCOW

Iraq replaced Malaysia, who supported the American-led boycott of the games. In the group stages Iraq did very well, beating Costa Rico 3-0, and tying both Finland and Yugoslavia. Iraq then lost 4-0 to a strong East Germany side, who eventually won the silver medal. Gold went to Czechoslovakia, and the Soviets took silver.

1984 – LOS ANGELES

Iraq tied Canada, before losing to both Cameroon and Yugoslavia in the group stage. The latter took the bronze medal, with France and Brazil claiming the top two spots respectively.

1988 – SEOUL

In South Korea, Iraq opened the tournament with a 2-2 draw against Zambia, and topped up their performance with a 3-0 against Guatemala, before losing by a pair of goals to the Italians. Unfortunately, their tally of points wasn’t enough to see them through to the second round. The Soviets won the tournament with Brazil and West Germany taking the number two and three spots.

2004 – ATHENS

The Iraqis top their opening stage group with wins over Portugal (4-2), Costa Rica (2-0), only losing 2-1 to Morocco. In knockout stage, Iraq brushed aside Australia with a one nil win, before losing 3-1 to Paraguay in the semi-finals. In the bronze medal game, Iraq lost by a single goal to Italy, settling for fourth place instead. The tournament was the first international outing for a group players including the talismanic striker Younis Mahmoud, Emad Mohammed, Hawar Mulla Mohammed and the maestro Nashat Akram. This same team would go on and shock the footballing world by winning the Asian Cup in 2007.

2016 – RIO DE JANEIRO

The Iraqis will take on Denmark, Brazil and South Africa in what observers think will be a good outing for the boys in green. Iraq reached the Olympic tournament by beating Qatar in a nerve wrecking third place playoff at the Asian under 23 competition held earlier in Doha. The young side boasts a lot of talent in all positions and is looking to gain much needed experience, and use the tournament as a stepping stone for building a team for the future.


Iraq will also be participating in Judo, Rowing, Boxing, Weightlifting as well as the Paralympic games in Rio. Shamefully, there are no women competing for Iraq during the tournament.


Ahmed Habib is a lifetime supporter of football from Iraq, and spends most of his time daydreaming about Iraq winning the World Cup. He can be reached at shakomako(at)gmail(dot)com.