23 January 2015. A date that is forever etched into the memories of all Iraqi football fans.
The 2015 Asian Cup was being held in Australia, and this quarter-final was on a Friday. It meant a lot of Iraqis had to wake up early in the morning before school or work to catch the game – and I was one of those.
It seems strange to say now, but despite this being a quarter-final against one of our historic rivals, I found it difficult to really get myself excited for it. Iraq’s pre-tournament form had been woeful, and Radhi Shenaishil had only very recently taken charge. We had laboured to wins over Jordan and Palestine in the group stage with uninspiring performances, and with Iran being Asia’s top-ranked team at the time, I was expecting nothing more than defeat. When Azmoun headed Iran into an early lead, it seemed Iraq were indeed heading for a forgettable quarter-final exit.
No one could have predicted what was to come next.
A deserved red card for Iran saw the momentum of the game change in our favour. We started to pressure and after Yaser Kasim’s free-kick was tipped over by the Iran ‘keeper, I started to feel a sense of hope. ‘We can do this!’
We got the equaliser soon after through Ahmed Yasin, but as we continued to press for a winner heading into extra-time, I was finding it difficult to see where another goal was going to come from. Thinking back, that was silly of me – of course it was going to come from Younis Mahmoud!
But you can never take anything for granted when it comes to Iraq. We conceded just minutes after Younis’ goal and it looked like we’d blown it. However, the brilliant Yaser Kasim forced a penalty which Dhurgham Ismail scored and with just four minutes left, I thought we had actually pulled it off.
Except, well… refer to the first sentence of that last paragraph. Iran equalised through another header right at the death and Iraqis were stunned into disbelief. The neutrals were loving it, but for us Iraqi fans it was almost enough to give us a heart attack.
Most of the penalty shootout remains a blur in my memory – perhaps the nerves were too much – but two moments stand out in particular. The first being Younis stepping up to take penalty number five. Miss and we were out. I truly feared for him in that moment, especially considering that he had missed his last two penalties. But truth be told, that kick could not have fallen to a more suitable man. Younis smiled, chipped the ball in Panenka style, shook the ref’s hand and strolled back to his teammates as if nothing happened. It was astonishing to say the least – and really instilled confidence in the rest of the team. Captain, leader, legend.
Of course, the second moment was the winning kick. Salam Shakir jogged up to the ball almost in slow motion as millions of Iraqis across the world held their breath. The moment that ball touched the back of the net… it was the type of euphoria that words cannot describe. Iraq had won one of Asia’s all-time greatest matches and were in the semi-finals. And I was late for school!
We’ve had our ups and downs in the years since that day, but Srečko Katanec has restored a sense of hope in me and many other Iraqis once more. Great results, exciting young players and a real hunger to succeed for the people of our nation. To all Iraqis reading this, keep faith and Inshallah we can experience even more matches like this in the future. Yalla ya Usood!