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Documentary revisits Iraqi national soccer team's victory in the 2007 Asian Cup

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq deposed Saddam Hussein, but it also sparked sectarian violence that would plague the country for years. Neighbor attacked neighbor. Tens of thousands were killed. But at the height of that civil war, in 2007, something amazing happened. A soccer tournament, the Asian Cup, gave the country joy and hope in the midst of grief and fear. The Iraqi national team, against all odds, started winning.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LIONS OF MESOPOTAMIA")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: And it just floated into the zone.

FADEL: Iraq beat Australia, they beat South Korea. They went all the way to the final against heavily favored Saudi Arabia. And they won.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LIONS OF MESOPOTAMIA")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: The leader of his team, the leader of a nation at this precise moment brings joy to the lands.

FADEL: And as you can hear in the voice of sportscaster Hisham Mohammed, it still matters some 17 years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LIONS OF MESOPOTAMIA")

HISHAM MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) This story must never be erased from the memories of every Iraqi. I will keep telling the miracle of 2007.

FADEL: A new documentary about that team just debuted at the SXSW festival. It's called "The Lions Of Mesopotamia." I went to Austin to meet with director Lucian Read.

LUCIAN READ: I spent the better part of the middle of the aughts in Iraq, working as a photojournalist, covering the U.S. military and not really kind of doing my journalistic duty, covering sort of the Iraqi side of the story - what I always kind of felt like as a journalistic failure, really, on my part. And so when this story was shared with me, I saw it as a, you know, tremendous opportunity to, like, literally center Iraqis in the frame of a film, have them tell their story and really kind of hold them up as the incredibly admirable, enduring, passionate humans that they are.

FADEL: And what really came across is this team reflected the sorrows and tragedies and also joys of Iraq. And that was pre the war as well. You start the film, and a lot of these players were playing in youth soccer.

READ: Yeah. They're teenagers.

FADEL: Teenagers - right? - under Saddam Hussein. And who runs the program? Saddam Hussein's - now we know - sadistic son, Uday. What was life like for these footballers in that period?

READ: By and large, you know, lives of struggle, right? I mean, Nashat talks in the film about like, we only had one shirt, right?

FADEL: Right. Sanctions.

READ: Yeah.

FADEL: Right? They had a - one shirt where the entire family shared it.

READ: All the kids shared it throughout the day.

FADEL: He's like, my sister wore it here. I wore it...

READ: It was, like, kind of one dress shirt that was, you know, suitable to go out in public in, and so they swapped it.

FADEL: There was also - and this came across in the film - the threat of violence if they didn't play well under Uday

READ: Yeah, yeah.

FADEL: Because the punishments, according to them, were lashes and actual physical violence. Like, they were in danger...

READ: Yes.

FADEL: ...If they didn't do well.

READ: Yeah. I mean, they were kind of the last in a long line under Uday of players who, you know, kind of lived in terror.

FADEL: But then the U.S. invasion happens.

READ: Correct.

FADEL: Uday Hussein is killed. His father Saddam Hussein's deposed. The threat of this violence, of this torture is gone. Iraq and these footballers, they face a new threat - the loss of security, the breakdown of Iraq. What were the players living through at this point?

READ: You know, I think there was probably a brief period where it's going to be great. We're going to be fine. Like, look what's happening. Saddam is gone. And - but the players talk about it as, like, kind of the beginning of a whole, you know...

FADEL: The chaos.

READ: The chaos. Right.

FADEL: The backdrop of this tournament in 2007 was the sectarian war that was sparked by the U.S. invasion and occupation and the power jockeying that came after that - Sunnis and Shias killing each other, Arabs and Kurds, Christians being killed. And this is what the players are living through as they try to win this tournament for their country.

READ: Yeah. Yeah.

FADEL: What was the state of Iraqi football at this time? I mean, how are they playing these tournaments?

READ: Well, I mean, domestically, my understanding is that most of them left, right? Anybody that could leave left. And the national team, you know, they didn't play at home for like 20 years. At certain points, they talk about like, you know, everybody lost somebody.

FADEL: Yeah.

READ: Right? Their physiotherapist - right? - who's, like, their doctor goes home to see his baby born - went to get a - I think, to the Iraqi airlines office to get a ticket to fly back to Oman, and they blew up the office and killed him.

FADEL: Wow. But they have this new coach, Jorvan Vieira, and they do something that the world thinks is impossible.

READ: Yes. I mean, even - mostly - they thought it was impossible, right? You know, Jorvan is brought in. He's kind of the last guy to take the job. The previous national coach was a German who, like, experienced some sort of near-kidnapping attempts and was like, I'm not doing this anymore; goodbye, right? And so they bring Jorvan in very late. You know, I think, you know, his main talent was actually understanding culturally what was going on amongst them all. I don't know if he was the most amazing strategist, but he was obviously the coach that was needed at the time.

FADEL: And then they start winning, and fans back home start to believe.

READ: Yeah. You know, what was going on back home, nobody's - I mean, you remember this - nobody's on the street. Like, nobody's gathering in places. Any place there's a large gathering of people, you're inviting a car bomb.

FADEL: Yeah. And for context, and this is mentioned in the film, this is the deadliest year on record, 2007.

READ: Yeah. It was awful.

FADEL: Yeah - people being killed in the street, car bombings, assassinations.

READ: Right. So to gather any place is, you know, a terrible idea. And initially, nobody is because nobody's paying attention to them, or nobody believes they're going to do anything. You know, when they finally beat Australia, suddenly, finally, everybody's like, this might happen; this actually might happen. And they started to come out into the streets. And, you know, there's sort of - I mean, really defying death, essentially, to show their support for the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LIONS OF MESOPOTAMIA")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: And the team which many say is succeeding where the politicians are failing by uniting a country is now just one win away from the ultimate prize.

FADEL: There is a podcaster in the film, Hassanane Balal, who talks about as the team starts winning.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LIONS OF MESOPOTAMIA")

HASSANANE BALAL: And I was just holding on to a Quran and just praying 'cause sometimes it feels like as an Iraqi, we're not supposed to be happy because everything seems to be going wrong for us.

READ: I mean, I wanted to end with like, and then the war was over and everything was great. But the reality is, like, they brought the country back together for, like, five or six years. And then ISIS comes, and there's a whole other thing, right? They feel very confident - and many, many people I talked to feel very confident - that their victory in the Asian Cup was a true catalyst to the end of the civil war. Unfortunately, history and the outside world conspires against Iraq, and so that victory couldn't hold it together forever.

FADEL: That's Lucian Read. He's the director of a new documentary about the Iraqi national football team's championship run at the 2007 Asian Cup. It's called "The Lions Of Mesopotamia." Thank you so much.

READ: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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