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Iraq win in Baghdad, but the drama fails to match occasion

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Iraqi team players celebrate after scoring a goal during their friendly football match against Syria at the al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad on March 26, 2013
Iraqi team players celebrate after scoring a goal during their friendly football match against Syria at the al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad on March 26, 2013

Iraq beat Syria in front of a capacity crowd at the Al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad in only the second international game played in the Iraqi capital since the end of the 2003 War. Even with Ali Rahema rattling in a late winner for the home side in the 95th minute, the Iraqi team were unable to live up to the momentous occasion in a serene game devoid of much drama and goalmouth action.

The whole event was lit up by the thrilling scenes of over 40,000 Iraqis congregating together to celebrate the return of international football to the Iraqi capital. On the morning of the game, a steady stream of Iraqis from provinces around the country made the long pilgrimage to the home of Iraqi football, Malaab Al-Shaab (People’s Stadium).

Two hours before the big kick-off, the stadium was packed to the rafters and forced stadium officials to close its gates early, leaving around twenty thousand disappointed fans outside the ground.

The Iraq FA had opened an operations room at their headquarters to manage the organisation of the hastily arranged international that had been moved from the city of Arbil after FIFA’s ban on international games in Baghdad had been partially overturned last week. With the verdict from the Court of Arbitration (CAS) over the 2011 FA elections expected at the end of this month. FA member Kamil Zaghir was trying to put a positive spin on the work of the FA’s adminstration, and how it had managed to break the international embargo on Iraqi football.

Al-Forat TV had been given exclusive television rights to broadcast the historic friendly, and it had been reported that the Iraqi channel would have nine cameras at the stadium covering every angle of the game, however fans were left unamused with the poor quality pictures, the shoddy camera-work and the lack of television replays to analyse key incidents in the game.

The match commentator Loay Al-Amran gleefully spoke of his delight to see international football back at the Al-Shaab and the national team players in the safe and secure surroundings of the city of Baghdad, but he was unable to recount to the millions of people tunned into watch, the names of the players, mixing up left back Ali Adnan with Mohammed Jabar Rabat, who was not even in the squad, while desperately scrolling down the team sheet to get the name of the Syrian goalscorer Omar Khrebin after noticing he had come on as a second half substitute.

It was the passionate Al-Shaab crowd, numbering between 40,000 to 50,000, that made the game unforgettable. Many spectators had camped outside the stadium from the early hours of Tuesday morning to get into the ground, but they, unlike one or two of Iraq’s players, showed no signs of fatigue, vigourously waving Iraqi flags, dancing, singing and chanting long into the night.

The roar of the crowd when the two teams came out onto the field was deafening, and then came the chorus of Iraqi fans singing their national anthem, each word on the breath of every Iraqi drifting through the whole of the stadium. The Lions of Mesopotamia were finally back home where they belonged.

Only a select few of the current Iraqi players had played for the national side in front of their own fans at the Al-Shaab Stadium, they were Nour Sabri, Ali Rahema, Salam Shaker and captain Younis Mahmoud. The Iraqi captain, with Al-Sadd in the Qatari league, had made his debut for in the last friendly matches before the start of the 2003 War, in July 2002, ironically against the same opposition, Syria.

The last game played in Baghdad was against Palestine on July 13, 2009. That game was badly organised, with the game kicking off late while swarms of boisterous spectators were gathered around the side of the pitch, a flashback to the good old days of the 50s and 60s at the Scouts Ground in Al-Kasra, a stadium that previously hosted Iraq’s international matches.

The Iraqi delegation had only returned to Baghdad on the Sunday after they had been delayed for 10 hours in China, where they had lost in Vladimir Petrović’s first game as coach. Their opponent’s had flown into Baghdad hours before the Iraqi team, with only 11 local players. Six Syrians professionals based in Iraq joined up with the rest of the squad in the Iraqi capital, while Mahmoud Al-Mawas and Ahmed Adouni from West Riffa in Bahrain, and Sanharib Malki from Dutch club Roda JC Kerkrade, who captained the side, flew into Iraq only hours before the game.

Syria, the WAFF Champions, started with four players on the books of Iraqi clubs, Hamdi Al-Masri (Al-Naft), Zaher Medani (Al-Zawraa), Burhan Sahiouni (Duhok) and Hamed Mido (Al-Minaa), along with defender Abdul-Kader Dekka, who had a short stint at Baghdad’s Al-Sinaa only a few months ago.

Iraq’s coach made three changes from the side that started the last match in Changsha, giving a debut to Al-Shurta playmaker Ahmed Fadhil, donning the No.5 jersey, previously worn by former national team maestro Nashat Akram. Ahmed and his team-mates were unable to create any clear-cut opportunities, and it was the visitors that had the best chances in the opening forty-five minutes.

Iraq’s best effort in the first half came after a well-worked move, that Swedish based Ahmed Yasin was unable to finish on 27 minutes, blazing high and wide after receiving a pass from Ahmed Abbas.

In the last moment of the second half, right winger Burhan Sahiouni, of Iraqi club Duhok, floated a ball into the Iraqi penalty box. Syria’s unmarked striker Ahmed Adouni looked certain to score, but Nour Sabri was alert to push the effort over the bar.

At the start of the second half, Iraq made three changes, bringing on goalkeeper Jalal Hassan, defender Ahmed Ibrahim and Alaa Abdul-Zahra, and it was Alaa, playing in the hole behind the two forwards, drifting between midfield and the attack, that put Younis through on goal on 51 minutes, and the Iraqi captain calmly slotted the ball past the keeper and into the bottom left hand corner of the net. Que delirious celebrations from Iraqi fans in the stands.

The Syrian keeper Mahmoud Al-Yousef was then involved in a collision with the goalscorer, and had to be replaced after 63 minutes. The visitors went onto make a flurry of substitutions in a matter of minutes, bringing on Ali Diab (of Duhok), Muayad Ajan (of Naft Al-Janoub) and Mahir Al-Sayed, the only surviving member from the Syrian squad that had played in the last encounter between Iraq and Syria in Baghdad in 2002.

One of Syria’s substitutes, Omar Khrebin got his side on level terms in the 80th minute, after collecting a ball from Mahir Al-Sayed in the Iraqi box and going past Ahmed Ibrahim, and beating Jalal Hassan at his near post. 1-1 and it looked as if the game would end in a draw, but for one Iraqi player, who before the game had told his team-mates that he would score at the Al-Shaab, but could not be sure at which end, in Syria’s goal or his own.

The fourth official indicated six minutes of stoppage time on the electric board, and as the seconds ticked away, midfield anchor Ali Hussein Rahema, who had grown up as young boy in the slums of Al-Sadr City dreaming of playing for Iraq and scoring at the Al-Shaab, broke from the centre and raced into the opposing box, and with the outside of his right boot placed the ball perfectly into the bottom left hand corner of the net. It was as if he had dreamt it the night before.

The matchwinner ran towards the celebrating spectators, while the happy Iraqi coach hugged his assistant and members of his backroom staff, to congratulate them on the victory, his first as coach of the Lions of Mesopotamia.

Iraq 2-1 Syria
Younis Mahmoud 51, Ali Hussein Rahema 90 (+5); Omar Khrebin 80
IRAQ: 22 Nour Sabri (1 Jalal Hassan 46′); 14 Salam Shaker, 15 Ali Rahema, 23 Walid Salim, 6 Ali Adnan; 5 Ahmed Fadhil (11 Humam Tariq 76′), 8 Saif Salman (4 Khaldoun Ibrahim 84′), 21 Ahmed Abbas (2 Ahmed Ibrahim 46′), 9 Ahmed Yasin (17 Alaa Abdul-Zahra 46′); 16 Mohanad Abdul-Rahim, 10 Younis Mahmoud.
COACH: Vladimir Petrović
SYRIA: 26 Mahmoud Al-Yousef (22 Taha Mousa 63′); 2 Ahmed Salih, 18 Abdul-Kader Dekka (5 Ali Diab 64′), 4 Hamadi Al-Masri (3 Muayad Ajan 65′), 13 Ahmed Khalasi; 8 Zaher Medani, 20 Hamed Mido, 7 Burhan Sahiouni (6 Mahmoud Al-Mawas 52′), 11 Uday Abdul-Jaffal (17 Omar Khrebin 52′); 19 Ahmed Addouni, 10 Sanharib Malki [c] (9 Mahir Al-Sayed 66′).
COACH: Hossam-Al-Din Al-Sayed
Referee: Mohammed Arafah (Jordan)
Linesmen: Faisal Mohammed Awad Shwair (Jordan) & Abed-Al-Rohman Aqel (Jordan)
Fourth Official: Ali Sabah Uday (Iraq)
Cautions: Ahmed Salih 83′.