Asian Icons: Younis Mahmoud (Iraq)
Kuala Lumpur: There are few images more iconic in Asian football: with his mouth wide open in a celebratory roar, Younis Mahmoud hoists the AFC Asian Cup trophy high into the Jakarta night sky as Iraq complete a remarkable triumph over Saudi Arabia in the final of the 2007 championship.
Mahmoud’s towering header – his fourth goal of the tournament – secured Iraq’s first-ever AFC Asian Cup title and it remains a totemic moment in the history not only of the striker’s career or in the pantheon of his own nation, but of the Asian game. A moment truly befitting an Asian Icon.
Clubs: Kirkuk, Al Talaba, Al Khor, Al Gharafa, Al Arabi, Al Wakrah, Al Sadd, Al Ahli
International appearances (Goals): 148 (57)
Basketball’s loss, football’s gain
Born in Dibbis, Bey Hassan in Kirkuk province, Younis Mahmoud’s sporting journey almost went down a very different route. The son of a former local footballer and policeman much preferred playing basketball as a youth.
In 1996, though, it had been decided that football – with its greater earning potential and career prospects – was the way to go for the young Mahmoud, who soon begun playing for local side Kirkuk.
It was clear, even then, the man who would go on to be known as the ‘Desert Fox’ was destined for greater things than a provincial side and he was signed up by Baghdad club Al Talaba, one of Iraq’s leading sides.
Mahmoud’s debut came against old club Kirkuk and home town loyalties were put aside as he netted a hat-trick, with Al Talaba going on to win the league and cup double.
Ahead of the football tournament at the 2004 Olympic Games, no Asian team had come close to matching Japan’s bronze medal at the 1968 edition.
Kuwait’s 12th place finish at Sydney 2000 had been the best performance from a West Asian side.
But in Athens, Mahmoud, who made his national team debut the previous year, and Iraq went close to shocking the world.
Their Group Stage opener was against a Portugal line-up that boasted the names Raul Meireles, Jose Bosingwa, Luis Boa Morte and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks but Iraq swept them aside 4-2 with Mahmoud on the scoresheet.
Costa Rica were also beaten as Iraq would top the group and progress to the knockout stage for the first time, before they defeated an Australia side featuring Tim Cahill, Eugene Galekovic and John Aloisi in their squad to reach the semi-finals.
From that point on, though, only heartbreak remained.
A 3-1 loss to Paraguay in the final four ended hopes of gold, before a 1-0 loss in the bronze medal match to a powerful Italy team that was captained by Andrea Pirlo.
Nevertheless, Iraq’s fourth-place finish remain to this day the best-ever performance by a West Asian side in the Olympic Games football tournament.
A month before the Athens Olympics, Mahmoud had played a part in Iraq’s run to the 2004 AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals and his performances there helped earn him a move to Qatar and club Al Khor SC.
Mahmoud would ultimately spend the best part of nine years in the peninsular. He was at his most prolific with Doha club Al Gharafa where he won three league titles, top scored in the 2006-07 Qatari league season, and enjoyed AFC Champions League campaigns in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
The Iraqi also won the Sheikh Jassim Cup and Qatari Stars Cup following spells at Al Arabi, Al Wakra and Al Sadd.
A moment in history
“To be honest, few expected Iraq to go further than the knockout stage and we didn't predict we would win in Asia's highest-level competition,” Mahmoud told FIFA.com.
“But it was beyond question that every player of our team had his own dream to create the unexpected. There had been a moment before the tournament kicked off, though, when I looked into my mind and said to myself 'it's now or never'.”
The 2007 AFC Asian Cup has become a thing of folklore in the footballing world; the ultimate underdog story.
And there’s no doubt it is Mahmoud who is among the protagonists due to his magic moment in the final of the competition.
With conflict wracking the nation and the team dogged by difficulties, Iraq went on a fairytale run to their maiden final against a Saudi Arabia side that had been in six of the last seven continental championship deciders.
In the final itself, played in front of over 60,000 spectators in Jakarta, the match was deadlocked until the 73rd minute.
Then, Iraq midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed sent in a corner from the right and it was Mahmoud who rose highest to connect with the ball and send a looping header over a flailing Yasser Al Mosailem in the Saudi Arabia goal and into the back of the net.
Cue ecstatic celebrations on the field, the bench, and the stands from the Iraqi players, coaches, and fans alike.
It was a joy matched only by the full-time whistle blowing some 20 minutes later with the score ending 1-0 to Iraq.
“It was something unbelievable for me, even today. Making it all the way through was beyond our imagination,” said Mahmoud.
“We wrote our names into the history books as we won the continental title for the first time. What was more significant was that with such tremendous success, we put a smile back on the faces of our people.”
World Cup Dreams
“This is my dream, to go to the World Cup,” said Mahmood in 2013. “I have done everything for my country, but we still haven’t gone to the World Cup.”
Sadly, this is one goal that the Asian icon never achieved. The striker was involved in three separate FIFA World Cup campaigns, scoring a total of 11 goals in qualifying but each time his nation has fallen short.
The first campaign for Mahmoud was the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers but Iraq failed to reach the final round. Brazil 2014 looked more promising after Iraq topped their group in the penultimate qualifying round, but to great disappointment would finish in last place in the final stage.
The Road to Russia, Mahmoud’s final attempt to play in the World Cup, told a similar tale. Comfortable passage from the Joint Qualifiers, but subsequent underachievement that sees them already eliminated from the reckoning.
A dream for Younis that will never be fulfilled, at least as a player.
With the World Cup dream extinguished, and the next AFC Asian Cup taking place in 2019, it means Mahmoud’s major tournament swansong remains the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, but what a competition it was!
Especially as the Kirkuk-native played a part in one of the great matches in the tournament’s history.
Wins over Jordan and Palestine, with Mahmoud scoring against the latter, saw Iraq through to the quarter-finals with a hotly anticipated clash with one of the tournament’s favourites, and regional rivals, Islamic Republic of Iran.
An incredible rollercoaster match took place at Canberra Stadium. A passionate, sell-out crowd witnessed a 3-3 scoreline after a sensational extra-time period that saw four goals, Mahmoud netting one with a stooping header, and a penalty shootout was required.
Mahmoud was his country’s fifth spot-kick taker, with a failure to convert meaning elimination. He had previously taken one in a friendly match ahead of the tournament against Iran and attempted a chipped Panenka penalty – it failed miserably.
So, of course, with the match on the line, he tried it again.
This time he nailed it and Iraq would go on to win the match 7-6 on the shootout.
While the Lions of Mesopotamia would ultimately finish in fourth place, after losing to Korea Republic in the semi-finals, the scenes and memories for all those privileged enough to be at Canberra Stadium on 23 January, 2015 will live for a life time.
Regrets, I’ve had a few
With Mahmoud, there has long been a sense of what might have been about his career after he turned down opportunities in the aftermath of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup win to make a move to France.
“We have problems in our country but if we didn’t have problems in Iraq all of our players would play in Europe,” he says. “Marseille and Lyon came to try to take me to Europe but I didn’t go and everyone asks me why? But it was because I didn’t understand the outside world.
“We had problems in Iraq, and one was that we only had two television channels. Now it’s different and I can stay in my room and I know what happens in America and everywhere. But before I was afraid. I was worried about not being able to talk, about whether I could eat. Now it’s easy but then it was a problem and that’s why I didn’t go.
“But now all the time I think, my God why didn’t I go! When I played with (former Lyon and Brazil midfielder) Juninho Pernambuchano he said it was normal that I go. He said I could play in Europe easily, but I was worried about not being able to speak the language and eat the food. This was my problem.”
At the time of writing, Mahmoud’s last game for Iraq was as a substitute against Vietnam in the Joint Qualifiers on 29 March, 2016 and his last club season was that same year for the team where his legacy first began, Al Talaba.
While Mahmoud may not have been able to perform on the world or European stage as he would have liked, the memories he gave this continent in his nearly two-decade career have been ones to cherish and celebrate.
Photos: Lagardère Sports