The Iraqi national under-20 football team surprised everyone by reaching fourth place in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup this earlier month. After seeing off South Korea, England, Egypt and even Chile, the team eventually drew with Uruguay 1-1 at a semi-finals match in Turkey. The Iraqi youth then played Ghana for third place but lost; France won the overall tournament.
This is the first time an Iraqi youth football team have come this far. Two out of the three times they have competed in the tournament, they’ve fallen out of the contest in the first round. So this was considered a major breakthrough for Iraqi football – especially considering the security conditions in the country for the past few years, the fact that the youngsters had not played any preparatory matches and that general chaos reigns, members of the sporting community say, at the Iraqi Football Association.
Interestingly enough though, none of these factors were blamed for the youth team’s final defeat at Ghanaian hands. In fact, many fans attributed the loss to something far stranger: their team is cursed, they say: every time Iraqi politicians and senior government officials go to the games, Iraq loses.
They say that congratulatory messages and telephone calls sent to the team after their first few wins were also part of the curse, as were messages politicians broadcast on state TV declaring themselves happy fans of the youth team. Apparently even some of the players on the team feel this way.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ruz Nuri Shawis and a delegation of more than 40 officials attended the Iraq-Uruguay semi-final in the Turkish city of Trabzon on July 10.
This led one fan to tweet: “the minute these jinxed faces show up and stick their noses in, we, the real fans, lose”.
Another football romantic called Babylon Lion wrote on his Facebook wall that, “whenever a government official or politician goes to attend one of our team’s football matches, we lose that game”.
And they were not alone in expressing these sentiments; many local fans have made similar complaints.
Additionally football fans were not only upset because of the perceived “curse”, they were also upset because the officials who attended used tickets allocated by organizers for Iraqi fans.
“Some members of the official delegation used the tickets allocated for the fans themselves and also gave some to their friends and supporters,” Iraqi MP Qassim al-Araji said. “So many of the fans who registered to go to Turkey, who were allowed to travel and who arrived at the airport, did not make it to the game. A lot of fans were very upset and there have actually been calls in Parliament for an investigation, so that those who misused the tickets are held responsible for what they did.”
So could it be true? Could the Iraqi footballers really be cursed by their fickle political representatives? It seems unlikely. Ask around local experts in the sport and they come up with several, far less superstitious reasons for those final losses.
“Coach Hakim Shaker didn’t correct the mistakes that the defence players were making in the first games,” says former Iraqi professional footballer and national captain, Mijbil Fartous. “And he continued to ignore those mistakes until it was too late.”
Happily all of the above didn’t stop the Iraqi youth team from getting a rousing reception at Baghdad airport when they returned home. Local football fans are now eager to see the next generation of Iraqi footballers playing at the next level: the World Cup. The Iraqi adult team didn’t make it this year – in June they were beaten by Australia and Japan and will not be going to the 2014 World Cup tournament in Brazil. But Iraq’s many football fans are hoping that one day, this winning Iraqi youth team can make it to the senior World Cup. But of course, only if Iraq’s politicians stay at home.