Iraq & Football: A Remarkable Story of a Sport Lost & Found

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Written in 2009 by Danny Mammo
Edited and Updated in 2013 by Maggie Lin

“With our blood and soul, we will sacrifice for Iraq.”

In July 2007, screams were heard and tears were shed all around Iraq. Rather than serving as a reminder of another act of violence, however, the high emotions sweeping the nation celebrated, for the first time in Iraq’s history, an Asian Cup victory by the Iraq national football team. Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians joyously celebrated in collectivity the accomplishments of the Iraqi football squad. The thrilling tournament and Iraq’s road to victory make for an exciting story. In order to fully understand the magnitude of the Asian Cup victory’s unifying power, this web page will provide background on Iraq’s political state as of 2009 and Iraqi football prior to the American invasion in 2003. The story of Iraq’s unquestioned football legend, Ammo Baba, offers a picture of Iraq football’s successes and tribulations. After having the joy of the beautiful game swallowed by Uday Hussein during Saddam’s reign and at a time when Iraqis felt that they had lost their country, the 2007 Asian Cup victory allowed Iraqis to feel that they had reclaimed the football that was made famous by Ammo Baba.

The Legend of Ammo Baba

The story of Ammo Baba can help us understand why Iraqis were so decisive and not-in-the-least hesitant to cast aside their sectarian hatred for a short period after the Asian Cup victory. Aptly nicknamed Ammo Baba (Uncle Father in Arabic), the story of Emmanuel Baba Dawud embodies the successful rise of Iraqi football, while also contrasting the demise of Iraqi soccer under Uday Hussein.

As how many others learned to play football in the early 20th century, Baba learned from watching the British soldiers play at their Baghdad base. Growing up playing football, Baba was a naturally gifted athlete who ran one of the fastest 400-meter times in the country. Discovered by a youth coach, he spent his teenage years working his way through Iraq’s football league. On January 30, 1955, at just 20 years old, Baba established himself in Iraq and the Middle East when he was called up for the national team against the mighty Egypt. Playing forward, Baba was known as a bruiser who could fight through tackles. Having played a great game, the young Baba was greeted by Egyptian players who lined up to shake his hand in a show of respect for his effort.

Two years later in 1957, Baba really introduced himself to the world. In Iraq’s first official international match, Baba scored Iraq’s first goal against Morocco. In a series of firsts, Baba soon became the first Iraqi player a referee would send off, leading Iraqis to portray Baba as a fighter for the people.[1] Prior to being kicked off, Baba scored his memorable bicycle kick, or “backward double-kick,” as Iraqis call it, against Tunisia; a goal “so famous that the Tunisians…still remember it decades later.” Soon after, a decision made by Baba legitimized Iraqi football and cemented his place in the hearts of all Iraqis. During a time when foreign players were rare in British leagues, Baba’s services were sought out by the likes of Fulham, Liverpool, and Celtic.

However, he turned down these offers after the Iraqi government promised him protection and a better salary. Proud that one of their own was asked to play for such respected clubs, and even prouder that Baba chose to stay in his home country, Iraqis were very excited about the prospects of Iraqi football in the 1960s. Winning the Iraq championship with his club team in 1960, Baba went on to lead Iraq to a tremendous victory in the Pan-Arab Games held in Cairo in 1967. [2] This match would serve as one of Baba’s last successes as a player, and he retired from the sport in 1970. The successes for Iraqi football, however, were only just beginning.

Within three years of his retirement, Baba started coaching, and in the late 1970’s he took the reigns as head coach of the national team.[3] Later on in his life, Baba lived in Baghdad and ran a football academy for promising Iraqi footballers (see video). On May 27, 2009, Baba died of diabetic complications at the age of 74 and, as requested, was given the honor of being buried in Baghdad’s Al-Shaab Stadium.

Ammo Baba’s Baghdad School of Football for Children (American media does not show images of camps like these in Baghdad)

Ammo Baba: Player, Coach, & a Maverick of Individual Expression

As a coach, Baba led Iraq to Gulf Cup victories in 1979, 1984, and 1988, and an Arab Cup victory in 1988 as well. Iraqis were proud that Baba also led Iraq to qualify for the World Cup in 1986 and the Olympics in 1980, 1984, and 1988.[4] Baba won over the Iraqis because “he was a football coach, not a politician…. [He was someone] only interested in the game, not the people who ran the clubs or the country.”[5] However, these last few appearances may as well have been the last glimpses of football in Iraq until the Asian Cup victory in 2007.

The separation between sport and state ended when Saddam Hussein turned over control of Iraqi football to his son, Uday, in 1984. At the first of many meetings with Uday, Baba was issued his first of many demands. These demands ranged from using only players Uday selected to tactical strategies, and even cruel and torturous methods for dealing with losses. Politics had entered the sport as it had never before. As if on cue for the demise that was to come, in 1989, FIFA discovered that Iraq had sent over-age players to an under-19 tournament at the behest of Uday. As a result, Iraq was suspended from international play for two years.[6] Iraq would not go on to succeed in a major tournament until the qualification for the 2004 Olympics.

The role of the “greedy and sadist” Uday Hussein and the cruelties of the Saddam regime have been well documented.[7] Furthermore, personal tragedies were testaments against the iron fist of the Hussein family. Plainly, people who publicly spoke out against the government risked their livelihoods and that of their family’s. Baba could not stand the demands placed on him by Uday. Unlike some other Iraqi citizens, Baba did not back down, and was curiously not punished, for being outspoken. Iraqis held a deep reverence for Baba because he fervently defied Uday’s demands. “[Uday] used to call players before games and threaten them. Sometimes he telephoned the dressing room at half-time. He talked nonsense. I told him to go to hell. I said he knew nothing about football. How did I survive? Because the people loved me.”[8] For the understatement of the decade perhaps, Baba recalled that “Uday did not know the meaning of the word mercy…. [He] did things that even Hitler could not imagine doing. He beat us with cables. He made players play with a concrete ball. He used to watch and laugh when they kicked it.” When Uday would call Baba to his home to watch football and discuss strategy, Uday “would explode” when Baba would ignore his demands, telling Baba that he would kill him for his disregard by hanging and cut out Baba’s tongue.

These threats from Uday seem ridiculous, but he had followed through on these threats before; one only has to turn to former Iraqi players to understand the magnitude of Uday’s threats. Nonetheless, Baba replied once to a threat: “I don’t care. I am doing my job well. You are no better than me.”[9] Baba spoke out against Uday repeatedly yet somehow managed to survive. For many, there is no doubt that without Saddam’s protection of Baba, Uday would have killed Baba. The Iraqi people greatly respected Baba’s resolve, and even Saddam respected his honesty, calling him “the most honest man in the country.”[10]  Regardless, Iraqi football would never be the same. On top of the oppression that Iraqi football players had to endure, Uday did not allow Iraqi football stars to leave the country and play for more prestigious teams. When Uday finally acquiesced in 1993, he demanded portions of the players’ salaries in exchange for keeping the players’ families alive.[11]

This 11-minute piece below dramatically highlights the terrors endured by the Iraq national footballers under Uday Hussein. (If it is too long, scroll to 4:20 and watch the story of the Iraq goalkeeper until about the 6:00 mark).

Football in Iraq was lost under Uday Hussein. Under his oppressive regime, football that is usually a conduit for relief became strangled. Without offering players the dream to leave the country and constantly threatening players after losses with torture and death, Iraqis were given little incentive to dream and to play for the national football squad.

A Brief Glimpse of Iraq Immediately Before and After the 2007 Asian Cup Victory

While the Western media sometimes cover the difficulties that Iraqis face today as a result of the War, much of it is understated. The following is a portion of a blog entry (any spelling/grammatical errors have been maintained) from a teenage Iraqi girl who has blogged about her experiences in war-time Iraq under the pen name of Sunshine. This particular excerpt revolves around a controversy in which Shiite and Sunni students had final exams graded differently because a Shiite majority happened to rule the local government. Sunshine is in despair, having dropped from the top of her class due to a poor test score, which could determine her future:

“I’ve talked a lot about the changes that happened in our life since war began, non of them shows the democracy and freedom… Before war, there weren’t any differences between Shiites and Sunnis, actually I didn’t even know to which cast do I belong to! But unfortunately our government is trying to make huge differences between us, so the two casts start to feel jealous, hate and hurts each other but Shiites and Sunnis have been living together for thousands of years and even married each other!!!…Shiite or Sunni, I am Iraqi, and I’ll rebuild Iraq in the future, if you like or not, I will not give up, my religion and cast doesn’t matter, because I have a clear heart and unconditional love to Iraq, god will change what you damaged, we’ll be great doctors, engineers and professors, …you didn’t [give] the Sunnis the marks they deserve, and gave Shiite students and those who are loyal for certain parties much higher marks, but it will not make us dislike each other, what happened made us even more determined to be important people in the future, so that Iraq will be lead by clever, educated , and respectful Iraqis, who don’t part or treat people differently…
All I want to say is Saddam’s unfairness is better than your mercy.” [12]

This passage is paramount to understanding how sectarian violence has spread throughout all parts of Iranian society, and not just among a few forceful mafia-type groups. Sunshine’s sense of frustration and despair is manifested when she wishes for “Saddam’s unfairness” over American “mercy.” During the Iraq War, many Iraqi citizens were full of anguish and some committed ideological sectarian violence. Western media has done much to document these stories, but accounts after the Asian Cup victory bared little to no resemblance to the stories of hopelessness. Journalist Mahmood Farhan of the Iraqi Journalists League called the celebrations “a punch that came right in the nose of anyone who says we are divided…Look [at] how we swept off the dirt of occupation politics and, hand in hand, won each other’s love.”[13]

Iraq overflowed with sentiments similar to those described by Laura Fair with respect to football and Africa’s unity in the post-colonial era.[14] Baghdad’s Ali al-Fadhily from Inter Press Service recounts the story of a boy riding on a bicycle in the streets of Sadr City shouting, “Our hearts beat together, and let the occupiers go to hell.” Al-Fadhily reported that when Iraqis of different religious sects saw an international reporter, they wrapped around the reporter in hopes that he would understand their joy and pride for Iraq. This anecdote is key to understanding how football literally unified Iraq in the span of a 90-minute football match. The violence that had been occurring since the War broke out, even to the very day of the final match (two car bombs had killed more than 50 people), was suddenly cast aside because of the Iraqi football victory. Below is a video of the winning goal by the Iraqis in the Asian Cup final against Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s remarkable run sparked celebrations in Iraq and across the world, as dramatically seen in these videos shot in London’s Hyde Park and in Melbourne.

If anything has come from the Iraq War besides despair and violence, it is the fact that in Iraq, football has been found again. Watching the Iraqi football team in the 2009 Confederations Cup, Iraqi sports reporter,Haider Abdali commented that, “In the past, and now, there is no difference between Iraqis because Iraqis love each other and live together – from a long time. So now, and in the future, this team will be a picture for all Iraq because the team is mixed from all Iraq. There is no difference between us.” Iraqis of all backgrounds rediscovered the joys of football and found themselves in a state of unity in the absence of religious divisions. “It was people from outside,” Haider went on, “who came and did this to us to divide us, and they succeeded; but now Iraqis wake up and return to their lives and love each other.” [15]

Iraq & Football Today: Tournament Appearances, Budding Young Stars, and a Rebuilding Nation

In 2009, the Iraqi football team embodied some of the success of the new American independent regime, while serving as a stark reminder of the corruption that threatens democracy’s success in Iraq.

2009 FIFA Confederations Cup

In June 2009, Iraq qualified for the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, a tournament held every four years in the host country of the World Cup. The host country, the previous World Cup champion, and the winners of each of the six regional FIFA championships qualify for this event. After winning the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, Iraq earned a spot in this prestigious tournament.[16] While Iraq did not make it past group play, Iraqi supporters were happy to see their country’s team play at all on the international stage. Iraq played inspired defense, drawing 0-0 twice – first when playing against New Zealand and again when playing the host nation and fan favorite South Africa. Perhaps most impressively, the Iraq squad only suffered a 1-0 loss to the mighty Spaniards.[17]

Younis Mahmoud

Iraq was led by 26 year-old striker Younis Mahmoud, who captained the team to the Asian Cup victory. Perhaps one of the most underrated players in the world, Mahmoud was the youngest player to ever play for the Iraq national team and scored more goals than any other player in the 2007 Asian Cup. His relentless style of attack has left many nicknaming him “the butcher.” In the same year, Mahmoud was nominated for the prestigious Ballon d’Or, finishing 29th in football rankings.[18] Mahmoud’s successes had far reaching effects outside of football. Arabian Business hailed Younis Mahmoud as the number two most powerful Arab in their top 100 list. Editor of Arabian Business  Sean Cronin, supported their ranking with some remarkable words for the young footballer: “He did what every major world leader has wanted but failed to do, and he did it by something simple and yet amazingly profound at the same time – an amazing, magical goal. For that reason, he has had more influence in the past year than just about any other Arab.”[19]

Nashat Akram

Another prominent Iraqi footballer that deserves mention is Nashat Akram. This 25 year-old central midfielder and electrifying playmaker garnered much praise during the Confederations Cup. In 2007 Nashat Akram took home the FIFA midfielder of the year award and in 2009 he received Asian Footballer of the Year Award.[20] Hailed internationally, Nashat Akram has garnered interest from the likes of Manchester City and Sunderland.[21] [22] In January of 2008 Manchester City signed Akram to a two-year contract. However, the UK refused to offer Akram a work permit because the Iraqi national team was ranked too low in the standings. A player’s national team must have a ranking in the top 70 in order to gain a work permit in the UK.[23] Many argued that an exception should have been made because the low ranking was attributed to violence in the country, and Akram symbolized the possibility of the reunification of the divided Iraq

Iraq-Palestine Friendly

Amidst all the international recognition Iraq had received because of the national football team, perhaps the most prideful achievement of the team was when football returned to Baghdad. In July 2009, for the first time since 2002, another team came to Iraq for an international friendly. Palestine, no strangers to war themselves, crossed into Iraq as 65,000 Iraqis filled Shaab Stadium. Iraq defeated the Palestinians in a resounding 4 – 0 victory, with the crowd chanting, “With our blood and soul, we will sacrifice for Iraq.”[24] The magnitude of the event cannot be be more significant as the chant can bring tears to Iraqis around the world. Having served as one of Uday’s favorite torture chambers, Shaab Stadium was finally home to the beautiful game again. The momentous game provided another promise of hope, perhaps almost as powerful as the fall of the Saddam statue replayed on Western television, that the Hussein regime was over.[25]

Despite promising signs, events in late 2009 cast shadows of doubt on whether Iraq could build on their momentum. In late November, FIFA suspended Iraq’s football squad, citing government interference with the national team. With the memories of how the Hussein regime impacted the national football team, such an allegation was a grave blow to a team that had shown much progress. Iraq appealed FIFA’s suspension, and the suspension was lifted in March of 2010. [26]

Iraq along with Iraqi football is still recovering from the War and the Hussein regime, and has had been mired by controversy in recent years. Former Iraqi footballer, Abdul Qadir Zainal commented that, “In the last 35 years of Iraqi football, we never had a problem this serious…Now I really fear for the future of Iraqi football.”[27] The path to recovery is not easy, and given other events since 2009, it can be seen that more work needs to be done to improve the outlook of Iraqi football.

How to cite this article: “Iraq & Football: A Remarkable Story of a Sport Lost & Found,” Written by Danny Mammo (2009), Edited and Updated by Maggie Lin (2013), Soccer Politics Pages (accessed on (date)).

Sources and links

Active as of 2013

[1] Mubarak, Hassanin. Ammo Baba: The Amazing Story of Iraq’s Football Legend. Goal. 29 May 2009. Available:

[2] Ibid

[3] Freeman, Simon. Baghdad FC: Iraq’s Football Story. London: John Murray. 2005. p. 92

[4] Ibid, p. 95-97

[5] Ibid, p. 97

[6] Ibid

[7] Karsh, Efraim & Rautsi, Inari. Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography. Grove Press. 2007.

[8] Freeman, p. 99

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, p. 100

[11] Ibid, p. 102

[12] Sunshine. ”Days of My Life.” Blog. August 04, 2009. Available:

[13] Al-Fadhily, Ali. Football Succeeds Where Politics Fails.Inter Press Service. 27 July 2007.

[14] Fair, Laura. “Kickin’ It: Leisure, Politics and Football in Colonial Zanzibar, 1900s-1950s,” Africa 67: 2 (1997): 224-251.

[15] Sykes, Hugh. Iraq united behind football stars. BBC. 22 July 2009.













Sources used in 2009


3 thoughts on “Iraq & Football: A Remarkable Story of a Sport Lost & Found

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