The 21st century has witnessed some of the greatest moments and best achievements in the Iraqi national football team's history. On this page, we have ranked and discussed in detail the top ten moments, starting with number 10:
13th July 2009 witnessed history as the Iraq national team returned to the home of Iraqi football, Al-Shaab Stadium, for the first time since the 2003 US-led invasion. Iraq were to play Palestine in the historic friendly game.
A cool finish from Hawar Mulla Mohammed was followed by a 30-yard screamer from Karrar Jassim. Alaa Abdul-Zahra's header and Emad Mohammed's penalty saw the game end 4-0 to Iraq. 50,000 supporters filled the stadium for the match and created an electric atmosphere fitting for the historic event. Football had well and truly returned to the Iraqi capital.
Being crowned the ‘World Team of the Year’ is an honour that usually goes to the biggest and best teams in the world. The likes of Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Brazil, France and Argentina have all been crowned this way by World Soccer magazine, one of the most popular sports magazines on the planet, and the award had become somewhat prestigious in the years building up to 2007, being easily the biggest award of its kind.
Before 2007, no team from Asia, at club or international level, had ever been crowned World Team of the Year, but it was none other than Iraq who broke that duck and won the award. Iraq’s heroic 2007 AFC Asian Cup triumph captured the imagination of the world, and the national team’s “extraordinary journey from war-torn also-rans to continental champions”, in the words of World Soccer themselves, earned them just over 22% of the votes.
2002 saw Iraq reach their first ever WAFF Championship final, where they would play Jordan. Iraq endured a nightmare start to the final when Jordan took a 2-0 lead within the first half-hour, but Iraq got right back into the game when Razzaq Farhan scored a header. With a matter of minutes left of the game, Iraq manager Adnan Hamad subbed on a teenage striker by the name of Younis Mahmoud. 19 years of age at the time, Younis had only played four full internationals for Iraq before and hadn’t scored a goal in any of them.
But, with just one minute left on the clock, Younis Mahmoud received the ball and fired it into the ball into the bottom right corner with his weaker foot to send the game to extra time. In extra time, Iraq’s captain Haidar Mahmoud Majeed leaped into the air to nod the ball into the net and score the Golden Goal which saw Iraq win the 2002 WAFF Championship, their first and only WAFF success to date.
In 2005, Iraq participated in the West Asian Games for the very first time and reached the final where they would face Syria. The Syrians took the lead within 20 minutes but Iraq responded with a goal of their own when veteran Razzaq Farhan swivelled past the defender to roll the ball home all in one swift movement. And another one of Iraq’s best ever strikers, this time Younis Mahmoud, put Iraq into the lead with an amazing first-time shot from 25 yards out on the half-volley.
However, Syria broke Iraqi hearts by equalising right at the death. The extra time period saw no goals, so a penalty shootout would decide which side would be crowned Kings of West Asia. Iraq’s Qusay Munir took the first penalty of the shootout and saw his spot-kick saved. But Noor Sabri made up for it by brilliantly turning Syria's penalty past his left post. After four penalties each, the score was 3-3. In a move that surprised everyone, Iraq’s ‘keeper Noor Sabri stepped up to take Iraq’s fifth kick and he smashed it perfectly into the bottom left corner, meaning that if Syria missed their next penalty, Iraq would be the champions. Noor Sabri had already saved one penalty and scored a penalty himself, but he managed to extend his heroics even further by diving to his right to save Syria’s fifth penalty and clinch the 2005 West Asian Games title for Iraq who were Kings of West Asia once again.
Despite their rivalry, there was an element of respect between Iraq and Iran before kick-off. After the events that occurred after this game, that respect was gone. Favourites Iran took the lead midway through the first-half but just before half-time, there was a major changing point in the game as Iran’s Pooladi received a second yellow card and Iran were brought down to ten men. It is difficult to tell whether referee Ben Williams gave Pooladi a second yellow for his attempted stamp on Iraq ‘keeper Jalal Hassan, or whether he gave it for simulation after Pooladi hurled himself to the ground grabbing his face after being touched in the chest by Hassan. Either way, the decision was undeniably the correct one.
Iraq equalised through Ahmed Yasin and the game ended 1-1 after normal time. Extra time goals from Younis Mahmoud and Dhurgham Ismail still weren't enough to secure the win as the game ended 3-3 after extra time. Iraq eventually won the shootout 7-6, largely thanks to a Panenka penalty from Younis Mahmoud, and progressed to the semis. Bitter Iranian fans, who had seen their national team fail to make the semi-finals of the Asian Cup for the third straight time, failed to accept their defeat and put the blame on referee Ben Williams.
They also launched unfounded allegations stating that Iraq’s Alaa Abdul-Zahra had been doping. They launched an official appeal to the AFC in an attempt to get 2007 Asian Cup winners Iraq kicked out of the tournament for no reason and get themselves reinstated, but, rather expectedly, the AFC immediately rejected the appeal despite all the optimism of Iran’s supporters. It was later revealed that Alaa had taken a nasal decongestant months before the start of the tournament whilst playing in Iran, and that Iran knew this all along but only revealed it after being knocked out and tried to make it sound like Alaa had taken a drug which would actually give him an advantage on the field. Iran tried to dampen the spirits of the Iraqis but Iraq marched on and eventually finished in a respectable fourth place in the tournament.
In 2004, Iraq qualified for the Athens Olympics football tournament and their journey started with a baptism of fire against Portugal, one of the favourites to win the tournament. Portugal’s star man was Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best young players in the world at the time, who had come off the back of a successful season at Manchester United where he had scored in the FA Cup final.
Portugal took the lead early on but the Iraqi underdogs responded perfectly by equalising just three minutes later through Emad Mohammed. And the Iraqi team shocked everybody by taking the lead when Hawar Mulla Mohammed nodded home. But Portugal managed to bring the game back level through FC Porto full-back Jose Bosingwa.
Portugal went down to ten men on 51 minutes and Iraq made the most of the extra man advantage, making it 3-2 through Younis Mahmoud and sealing the amazing victory in injury-time through Salih Sadir.
A war-torn Iraq had made history by reaching the semi-finals of the Asian Cup for just the second time in their history in 2007, but the majority of fans and pundits felt that their fairytale journey was going to end at the hands of Asian giants South Korea in the semi-finals.
The game went to extra time and Iraq almost broke the deadlock fifteen minutes from time when Hawar Mulla Mohammed’s shot hit the inside of the post and was cleared off of the line by a Korean defender. And eight minutes later, Hawar went agonisingly close again when he pulled a close-range volley just wide of the post. Neither side was able to secure a place in the showpiece finale after extra time, so the game had to be settled by penalties.
Hawar Mulla Mohammed, Qusay Munir and Haidar Abdul-Amir scored Iraq’s first three penalties, but South Korea also scored their first three spot-kicks. Yeom Ki-Hun stepped up for the Koreans for their fourth penalty, but Noor Sabri dived low to his right and pushed the ball around the post. Ahmad Mnajed comfortably slotted home to put Iraq in the lead in the shootout, and substitute Kim Jung-Woo hit the post with South Korea’s fifth penalty kick, meaning that Iraq had won 4-3 on penalties and reached the final of the Asian Cup for the first time ever.
The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world, and one of the biggest events of the Olympics is the football tournament. Iraq only qualified for it by the skin of their teeth (on goal difference) and weren't expected to go too far. The tournament started with one of the best victories in the history of Iraqi international football as Iraq defeated Euro 2004 runners-up Portugal by four goals to two. Many thought that this was just a fluke, but the young lions won their next game too, this time a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica.
Iraq’s final group game was a 2-1 defeat to Morocco but it did not matter as Iraq had already qualified for the knockout stage. Iraq were to face Australia in the quarter-finals, and they managed to earn a 1-0 victory thanks to Emad Mohammed’s stunning overhead kick to put them into the semi-finals. They would go on to lose the semi-final 3-1 to Paraguay though, and the third place match saw Iraq lose 1-0 to Italy thanks to a goal from Alberto Gilardino, skilfully assisted by Pirlo, as Iraq failed to get the bronze medal. It was still an absolutely brilliant achievement by the young team, and certainly one of the best in the nation’s history. The team did a great job flying the flag for Iraq, and helped to make the national team significantly more recognisable to the football world.
Iraq 4-2 Portugal
Iraq 1-0 Australia
Costa Rica 0-2 Iraq
Iraq 1-3 Paraguay
Morocco 2-1 Iraq
Italy 1-0 Iraq
In 2009, Iraq participated in their second ever FIFA tournament (the first being the 1986 FIFA World Cup). They qualified for the Confederations Cup by winning the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, and only conceded one goal throughout the tournament, finishing just two goals away from the semi-finals.
Iraq, under the management of Bora Milutinovic, played South Africa in the opener, and the game ended goalless thanks to Iraq goalkeeper Mohammed Gassid. The following game was Iraq’s only loss and the only game in which they conceded a goal, yet it was the game they gained most praise for. Iraq were playing the best team in the world at the time, Spain, and many pundits, including former Arsenal right-back Lee Dixon, predicted Iraq to suffer a heavy loss. However, a solid, resilient Iraq side proved everybody wrong, going into half-time at 0-0 and conceding just one goal in the second period through a David Villa header.
Spain’s 2-0 win over South Africa meant that Iraq needed to beat New Zealand 2-0 in order to reach the semi-finals, but, despite being favourites, Iraq were held to another goalless draw. Although they didn't qualify for the semis, Iraq participating in one of the biggest, most-watched international football tournaments in the world was certainly a moment to remember for all Iraqis.
South Africa 0-0 Iraq
Spain 1-0 Iraq
Iraq 0-0 New Zealand
In 2007, Iraq, a war-torn, unprepared underdog, reached the AFC Asian Cup final for the first time ever. It was a story that most Iraqi fans dreamed of, but never expected would actually happen in a million years. It had been a fairytale journey, with Iraq cruising past favourites Australia 3-1 in the group stage before beating Vietnam 2-0 in the quarters and squeezing past giants South Korea on penalties in the semis. With Noor in goal, the likes of Bassim Abbas and the beast Jassim Ghulam in the defence, the maestro Nashat Akram and the workhorse Hawar in midfield, and ‘The Assassin’ Younis Mahmoud up front, Iraq, managed by Brazilian Jorvan Vieira, had assembled one of the best teams in their history.
Up against Iraq in the final were three-time winners Saudi Arabia. Iraq almost decided to withdraw from the final after a suicide bomber killed 30 football fans who were celebrating the semi-final win, but decided to go on in honour of the dead. Iraq went into half-time at 0-0 despite completely dominating the opening 45 minutes, and they continued to dominate the second period. An Iraq goal seemed inevitable and it finally came on 73 minutes when Hawar Mulla Mohammed swung in a corner and Younis Mahmoud headed home to send 35 million Iraqis worldwide into ecstasy. Iraq were left holding their breath at the end but referee Mark Shield eventually blew the final whistle and Iraq had won the cup: an amazing story and one of football’s greatest fairytales.
Iraq’s journey was summed up perfectly by commentator Simon Hill: “The fairytale is complete. The team without a home base, the team without a coach until two months ago, the team left waiting in a hotel lobby for hours, the team who struggled to travel because of their passports… the team without hope has brought joy to its fractured nation! Football succeeds, perhaps you could say, where politics has failed. Iraq are champions of Asia - unbelievable!”