Meet Bengaluru FC’s opponents – Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force Club, Iraq)
War has a way of tearing a country apart in the most unimaginable ways. Many countries recover from it when given a chance and a long enough period of peace – like Japan after 1945. Iraq, though, was never given a chance. After years under the rule of Saddam Hussein, they were engulfed by a war started, and continued, by vested interests in search of that boon, and bane, of the Middle East – Oil.
Struggling to restore some normalcy to their lives, everyday Iraqis turned to the one thing they loved more than anything else as they sought to recover from the aftermath of the terrible war – football. It might seem corny, and not the least incongruous, to say this; but never has the beautiful game been more important to Iraq than now.
With Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya entering the AFC Cup final – the first Iraqi club to enter the finals of a major pan-Asian continental championship, the hopes of a nation rest on their shoulders.
“The conflict has had very bad effects,” said Sattar Jabbar, a former player at the club who is now its media officer. “Even for the players I must say. Some of their brothers and fathers fight in the army [against ISIS]. When they call, they ask the players to win so that they can have something to celebrate.”
In a delicious twist of fate, India’s youngest club will face Iraq’s oldest as the two great nations vie for their first taste of continental success.
Formed in 1931 by a couple of airmen, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya – known as the Air Force Club outside of Iraq – it is one of four Baghdad clubs that have dominated the Iraqi football scene over the ages (for academic interest, the others are Al Shorta, Al Zawraa and Al Talaba). They have won ten national titles including 5 league titles in the Premier League era (which started in 1975). They’ve won four FA Cup titles (including the most recent – by virtue of which they qualified into the AFC Cup) as well as a host of other domestic cup competitions.
Success begets support, and Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya are well supported across the nation, the supporters calling themselves Al-Soqoor – which translates to the hawks/the falcons (right from the club crest, that one). The war, though, has robbed them of the chance of seeing their heroes competing for glory – AFC only allowed the Iraqi club to participate after they were given special permission, and have played out all their matches in Doha, Qatar. No team – quite naturally- wanted to visit Iraq for a football game.
“When we play in Iraq we have thousands supporting us,” said 23-year old Syrian midfielder Zahir Midani “But we have lost that advantage. But I know people back home will be supporting us. This has to be a big gift to my home country and also Iraq.”
After overcoming the odds just to enter the tournament, the brave Iraqis have fought their way through the tournament. They won five out of six to top Group C – a group that included Palestine’s Al Dharia, Oman’s Al Arouba and Syria’s Al Wahda. They beat Jordanian champions Al Wehdat 2-1 in the round of 16, thrashed Al Jaish of Syria 5-1 on aggregate before pulling off their most impressive victory in the semifinal as they came from behind – twice – to beat Lebanon’s Al-Ahed 3-2 in the semifinal second leg to clinch the tie 4-3 on aggregate.
Quick, direct and not averse to getting a little physical, the Iraqis play a no-nonsense style of football –one that Mr. Ashley Westwood would certainly appreciate. It is a long ball game that aims at getting the ball to their pacy strikers as quickly as possible; Hammadi Ahmed in particular.
The Iraqi striker is a one man goal machine – having plundered an amazing 15 goals in the tournament (he’s scored in every knockout round game he’s played in). To put that into context, Bengaluru FC have scored a grand total of 17 in the tournament – as a team. Quick, ruthless and a regular fox-in-the-box, Ahmed has been arguably the player of the tournament so far. Juanan and John Johnson will have their hands full come tomorrow.
Basim Qasim, the head coach and former Iraqi national team player (who represented his nation in the 1986 World Cup) is a force to reckon with on his own. A legend during his playing days at Al-Shorta (the Police Club), he’s managed Duhok to their first Iraqi Premier League title ever in 2010 and he’s also managed the country’s most successful club Al Zawra’a – leading them to the title last year. He has successfully moulded Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in his mould – tough to beat, and relentless till the final whistle – but with midfield general Bashar Resan (an Iraqi national team mainstay) and speedy forward Samal Saeed suspended after they picked up suspensions during the semis and with central defender Saad Natif having been called up for the national squad (for the upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifying matches) he has an uphill task on his hands against the Champions of India.
An entire nation, though, will be praying for him, and his team – and for reasons far less prosaic than simply promoting the development of football in their nation.
For Iraq, football is more than just a game – it is the one thing that makes their day brighter – and no nation on Earth could use a win more than Iraq right now.
“All the people back in Baghdad, those on Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, they all wish us good,” assistant coach, and former Iraqi national team player Mehdi Jassim said “This match is important for people in Iraq. The national team’s results in the World Cup qualifiers have not been good (lost 3, won 1). So we need this win. Also if little kids can see the team win, they would want to play too and may be things will improve.”
As they would say in Baghdad, Allah Yusalmak, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, and may the best team win.