The Iraqi Premier League has had its fair share of drama and excitement in its 42-year history. Here, we detail seven of the closest and most exciting title races that the league has ever witnessed, with thanks to Iraqi football archivist Abu Baqir Al-Ahmed.
Before the final round of matches in the 1979/80 season, Al-Zawraa topped the table with 34 points from 21 games (each win counted for two points), while their rivals Al-Shorta were hot on their heels with 33 points. On 2nd May, Al-Shorta eased past Al-Minaa in their final match with a 3-1 victory, largely thanks to a brace from the league’s top scorer Ali Hussein Mahmoud, to move on to 35 points and leapfrog Al-Zawraa into first place. This meant that in order for Al-Zawraa to win the league, they had to defeat Al-Shabab on 4th May. A draw would crown Al-Shorta champions on goal difference. Al-Zawraa, who had some of Iraq’s best ever players in their squad (the likes of Thamir Yousif, Ali Kadhim and Adnan Dirjal), were expected to win their game against Al-Shabab but were shocked when Qasim Mousa put Al-Shabab a goal ahead within five minutes of the kickoff. Al-Zawraa equalised 15 minutes later through a penalty by Thamir Yousif and with 70 minutes remaining on the clock, it seemed as if “Al-Nawaris” (The Gulls) were going to win the game and take the title. But as time ticked on, Al-Zawraa became more and more frustrated as a stubborn Al-Shabab side held on. As the game got closer to its end, Al-Zawraa poured more and more players forward as the Al-Shorta players watched on nervously. Eventually, the full-time whistle blew to end the game at 1-1 and ensure that Al-Shorta won the 1979/80 Iraqi National League, their first league title since the foundation of the league in 1974.
The following season saw a similarly tense and dramatic end to the title race. Before the final round, Al-Talaba were in first place with 17 points, closely followed by defending champions Al-Shorta who had 15 points. Al-Talaba just needed to avoid defeat in their final game against Al-Tayaran (now Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya) to become champions for the first time, but surprisingly they fell to their second defeat of the season, losing the game 2-1. Al-Shorta, who had still not lost a match in the league, played against Al-Zawraa in their final game on 19th May. They knew that a win would put them level with Al-Talaba on 17 points, but Al-Shorta had +11 goal difference and Al-Talaba had +14 goal difference. This led the Al-Shorta camp to believe that a 3-0 victory over Al-Zawraa would win them the title by way of having scored more goals than Al-Talaba over the course of the season. Many doubted whether Al-Shorta would be able to pull off such a convincing victory, but they proved the doubters wrong as Ali Hussein Mahmoud’s scintillating hat-trick saw Al-Shorta claim the 3-0 victory that they needed. Al-Shorta thought they had done enough to retain their title, but the Iraqi Football Association then made an announcement that shocked fans and players alike. They handed the league title to Al-Talaba, saying that the tiebreaker for teams level on points and goal difference was number of wins, as opposed to goals scored. Al-Talaba had scored 19 goals compared to Al-Shorta’s 21, but that didn’t matter; what mattered was that Al-Talaba had won eight games compared with Al-Shorta’s six. This rule had never been used before, and was in fact never used again, which led many people into believing there was an agreement of some sort between Al-Talaba and the Iraqi Football Association or perhaps another conspiracy of some sort that led to Al-Shorta missing out on their second title, but it is unlikely that we will ever know the real truth for sure.
9th June 1983 saw the climax to the 1982/83 Iraqi National League. Going into the final day, unbeaten Salahaddin led the league with 33 points, while Al-Talaba were in pursuit with 32 points. The two challengers played against each other on the final day in Tikrit, with Salahaddin simply needing to avoid defeat in order to win their first ever league title. Al-Talaba needed to win the match to earn their third consecutive league. The game started nervously with both teams not wanting to concede early on, but it was Al-Talaba who made the first move, with Hussein Saeed putting them ahead on 40 minutes. The second half saw Salahaddin take control and begin to dominate the reigning champions, and their dominance paid off when they equalised through Najeh Rahim on 63 minutes. After this goal, Al-Talaba took control again and had a clear penalty shout waved away when Hussein Saeed was brought to ground inside the penalty area. Salahaddin, a club controlled by the two half-brothers of Saddam Hussein, managed to defend well for the rest of the game as the match ended 1-1 and saw Salahaddin claim their first and only league title to date.
This season saw Al-Zawraa and Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya playing each other in the Iraqi El Clasico on the final day, with the league title on the line. Prior to the final day, both teams were on 61 points but Al-Zawraa’s goal difference was far superior to that of “Al-Soqoor’s” (The Falcons’). This meant that Jawiya had to win the game to win the league; any other result would ensure that Al-Zawraa retained their title. Eight minutes into the game, Akram Emmanuel struck the ball past goalkeeper Jalil Zaidan to put Jawiya ahead in a packed Al-Shaab Stadium and put them on course to becoming champions. The second-half saw both teams go down to ten men thanks to the dismissals of Jawiya’s Radhi Shenaishil and Al-Zawraa’s Salam Hashim. Al-Zawraa took control of the game and thought they had equalised when Laith Hussein’s shot found its way into the back of the net underneath goalkeeper Omar Ahmed, however referee Subhi Rahim ruled the goal out for offside after the linesman raised his flag. Al-Zawraa were furious with the decision, and many of their players sprinted over to the linesman to vent their frustration. One reporter even attempted to interview the linesman while the match was still going on! The game ended 1-0 to Jawiya and crowned them champions, with Al-Zawraa missing out on the title thanks to that refereeing decision.
The 1997/98 Iraqi Premier League title race has gone down in history as the most exciting, the most dramatic and also the most comical title race in Iraqi football. For the first time in history, three teams were in contention for the title on the last day. Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya led the league with 70 points, ahead of Al-Shorta on goal difference and ahead of Al-Zawraa by a single point. The last day of the season saw Jawiya face off against Al-Zawraa at Al-Shaab Stadium, and at the same time, Al-Shorta were playing mid-table club Al-Sulaikh at Al-Kashafa Stadium. Al-Shorta went a goal ahead in their game, but by half-time, they were surprisingly losing 2-1 to Al-Sulaikh, meanwhile Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya were beating Al-Zawraa 1-0 thanks to Razzaq Farhan’s volley. Adnan Mohammed’s cool finish in the second-half made it 1-1 in that game, while Al-Shorta were still 2-1 down to lowly Al-Sulaikh. With 84 minutes on the clock, Al-Shorta grabbed an equaliser through Mufeed Assem whose shot appeared to have just crossed the line despite the Al-Sulaikh goalkeeper parrying it away – the lack of protests by the Al-Sulaikh players would suggest that it did indeed cross the line. The Jawiya-Zawraa match ended 1-1, while the Al-Shorta game was entering injury time. An Al-Sulaikh defender received a second yellow card for a dangerous lunge which gave Al-Shorta the perfect opportunity to put even more players up for their attack. Finally, with 93 minutes on the clock, Al-Shorta were awarded a penalty and their top scorer Mahmoud Majeed calmly rolled it to the goalkeeper’s right to win the title for Al-Shorta. Meanwhile, at Al-Shaab Stadium, the Jawiya players thought that Al-Shorta had drawn their match and they celebrated wildly, hugging each other and performing multiple laps of honour. They even gave their manager Ayoub Odisho “the bumps”, and Odisho went to the Jawiya fans and hugged them. Odisho then went on national television and said in an interview that he was delighted to have won the league title. Midway through the interview, the stadium announcer said that Al-Shorta had won their game 3-2 and had won the league, and Odisho exclaimed “Now they have won?” as his expression turned from delight to devastation in a matter of seconds. Al-Shorta collected their trophy at Al-Shaab Stadium to confirm that they had won their third league title.
The 1998/99 season saw yet another exciting race for the title. Al-Talaba topped the league before the final day with 74 points and Al-Zawraa were just a point behind them. Al-Talaba were to face Al-Naft on the last day (17th May) at Al-Shorta Stadium, and Al-Zawraa were to face Al-Karkh at Al-Shaab Stadium. A win for Al-Talaba would see them crowned champions, but a draw or a loss for “Al-Aneeq” (The Elegant) would open up the chance for Al-Zawraa to snatch the title away from them. Al-Zawraa surprisingly went a goal down within three minutes of their match, but two goals from Hesham Mohammed and a goal from Ahmed Radhi ensured Al-Zawraa recorded a 3-1 victory over their ten-man opponents. However, if Al-Talaba defeated Al-Naft in their game which was going on at the same time, Al-Zawraa’s result would mean nothing at all. Al-Talaba were expected to win, but Al-Naft’s goalkeeper Jalil Zaidan had a storming game as he saved everything that came his way. Al-Talaba attacked and attacked but to no avail as their game ended goalless and saw Al-Zawraa earn their eighth title, finishing a single point ahead of Al-Talaba.
The 2012/13 season was an exhilarating campaign. Since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, the Iraqi Premier League had become much less competitive and much less exciting than it used to be. But, the 2012/13 season changed all that. A huge influx of foreign players from places like Africa and South America brought more quality to the league, and the traditional giants such as Al-Shorta and Al-Zawraa became competitive once again. The league was played in a normal double round-robin format rather than the previous group stage system which made for a much more enjoyable season. Al-Shorta, who had finished seventh the previous season, were unfancied by most but emerged as favourites for the title after the mid-season signings of Iraqi legend Nashat Akram and clinical Nigerian striker Minusu Buba. Going into round 32 of 34, “Al-Qeetharah” (The Harps) had lost just twice all season and a win over Erbil would see them all but become champions. Al-Shorta were winning 1-0 heading into injury time but Luay Salah equalised for Erbil right at the death and postponed Al-Shorta’s title celebrations. Al-Shorta played against Al-Zawraa in round 33, once again needing a victory to win the league, but conceded an 84th minute goal and drew that game 1-1 as well. Al-Shorta had bottled two chances at the title and many believed the team didn’t have the mental strength to complete their fairytale journey. Heading into the final day (4th September), there were three teams still in contention for the trophy. An Al-Shorta win against rivals Al-Talaba would secure them the title, but if Al-Shorta slipped up yet again and Erbil managed to defeat Al-Najaf, the Northern side would be crowned champions for the second time in a row. If Al-Shorta and Erbil both slipped up though, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya were able to overtake both of them with a big win over Al-Masafi and take the title for themselves. Erbil won their game 1-0 and Jawiya won their match 2-0, but neither result mattered because Al-Shorta managed to put three past Al-Talaba thanks to goals from Hussein Kareem, Minusu Buba and Dhurgham Ismail, two of the goals being assisted by Amjad Kalaf. Al-Shorta’s 3-0 win was enough for them to secure the league title in what has gone down as the most competitive and exciting season in recent memory.