In 1986, while Iraq was embroiled in a bloody and costly eight-year war with Iran, their players took to the field at Estadio Bombonera in the Mexican city of Toluca to make the country’s first appearance at a World Cup. 

For the team and its players, it was the final stage of a life-changing adventure in which they had travelled the globe to complete a remarkable qualification despite not playing a single game in Iraq and hosting one ‘home’ game in Calcutta. Iraq’s World Cup began 6,000 miles from home in Maryland, USA. It was 3 August 1984 and the final group game of the Olympic Games. At half-time, Iraq led Yugoslavia 2-0. Everything that could have gone right had done for Ammo Baba’s side. But then Ivan Toplak, Yugoslavia’s methodical coach, switched his two wingers and brought on Mehmed Baždarević and Jovica Nikolić. Iraq were befuddled, their defence collapsed and, as Stjepan Deverić scored a hat-trick, they lost 4-2 to go out of the competition. 

When they got back to Baghdad, Ammo Baba, a revered former captain of the national side, was sacked after three years as coach. The Youth Minister, who chaired the country’s sports organisations, reprimanded the squad for their second-half display against Yugoslavia and announced that they would be withdrawn from the qualifiers for the Asian Cup. The Ministry of Youth appointed two coaches to take over a team in disarray and short of confidence: Akram Salman as head coach and Anwar Jassam as his assistant. At that point, the prospect of World Cup qualification was so remote as to seem preposterous. But within three months the mood had changed. 

The striker Ahmed Radhi, who had clashed with Baba over his heavy training programme before the Olympics, was restored to the side, while Jamal Ali was brought back in the problematic left-back position. Hussam Naama had been blamed for the second-half capitulation to Yugoslavia, but Ali was a far from obvious choice. In 1977, aged 21, he had become the youngest player ever to captain Iraq before falling from favour. Salman, though, knew him well from their time together at Al-Talaba. There was also a recall for Al-Shabab’s Basil Gorgis, a combative ball-winning midfielder, dropped by Baba for the Olympics. 

The first sign of an upturn came in Singapore, where the revamped squad beat the youth teams of Argentina – featuring Gerardo Martino and Pedro Monzón – Chile and Australia to reach the final of the Merlion Cup. At the National Stadium, Iraq then beat South Korea’s Under-23 side 2-0 with goals from Hussein Saeed and Wamidh Munir to lift the trophy. There were further positive signs in a 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest and a 4-2 win over Rangers in warm-up games in front of more than 30,000 at the Al-Shaab stadium in Baghdad. 

A few months earlier a new club by the name of Al-Rasheed had been promoted to the Iraqi top flight. In late 1984, the club signed some of the best players in the country: the centre-back Adnan Dirjal, the Allawi brothers Karim and Khalil, the playmaker Shaker Mahmoud, the defender Kadhim Mutashar and the up-and-coming striker Ahmed Radhi, a player who was predicted to take over the mantle from Iraq’s leading goalscorer Hussein Saeed. The Iraq Football Association suspended the league just after the half-way stage of the season, but Al-Rasheed already held a 14-point lead over their closest rivals Al-Jaish, having claimed 43 points from 17 matches. 

The new club had been founded a year earlier in the affluent Baghdad district of Mansour by the son and son-in-law of the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Uday, the eldest son of the Iraqi leader, was named vice-president. He had grand ambitions and when Al-Rasheed were promoted he began to encourage the club’s board to sign the best players in the country. Just as Iraq were progressing through the World Cup qualifying stages, Uday was climbing the greasy pole of Iraqi football administration. First he was named club president at Al-Rasheed and then president of the FA – winning an election at which he was the only candidate after potential rivals stepped down. Uday then became president of the Olympic Committee. That left only one position to claim and he began a media campaign against the Minister of Youth to force him to step down. 

The decision to halt the 1984-85 league was made because the Iraq FA feared that with suspensions for the World Cup qualifiers and the national B team taking part in regional competitions it would end up being concluded in the scorching summer heat. Under Jassam, the B side won the Arab Cup and the Pan-Arab Games in the space of two months, the latter victory especially impressive as it was sealed in front of 50,000 home fans in Rabat against a talented Morocco side featuring the goalkeeper Ezzaki Badou and the African Player of the Year Mohamed Timoumi. 

Forced to play their home games away from Baghdad, Akram Salman’s men kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign in Kuwait City against a disjointed Lebanon, whose Bulgarian coach Teodor Simeonovski found himself forced to conform to a club quota aimed at ensuring at least a degree of harmony between the different factions of a country racked by civil war. A kit clash meant Lebanon were forced to wear the yellow shirts of the host club Al-Qadisiya; 3-0 down at half-time they changed into red, but it made no difference and Iraq won 6-0. Two days later, Iraq beat them 6-0 again and when Lebanon shipped 15 goals in a pair of defeats to Qatar, their federation decided to withdraw from qualifying to avoid greater humiliation. 

Under the stewardship of the Brazilian Evaristo, a forward who had played for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, Qatar were well-drilled and improving and games between them and Iraq in the early 80s tended to be fiery affairs. Their previous encounter had ended in a mass brawl during an Olympic qualifier in Kuala Lumpur during which Iraq’s team doctor had attacked the Chinese referee with an advertising hoarding. A player from each side ended up being suspended from the tournament for fighting. 

Iraq had lost that game 2-0. A few months earlier, in the 1984 Gulf Cup in Muscat, they had been beaten by the Qataris for the first time. That victory set up a play-off between the two teams for the cup, which Iraq won on penalties. But the results indicated the strength of the Qataris: this was a test for Akram Salman’s side and they failed miserably, going down to Iraq’s heaviest World Cup defeat. 

The locals came out in force at the Grand Hamad Stadium in Doha, a sea of men in white thobes, and Iraq played as though bewildered, beaten 3-0 and losing the key player Hussein Saeed to add to an increasing casualty list that already included the region’s best defender Adnan Dirjal. 

Inevitably, the Minister of Youth got involved, gathering the whole delegation for an emergency meeting. Changes were immediately made to the starting line-up. Out went the goalkeeper Fatah Nasayif and back came the experienced team captain and group leader Raad Hammoudi. Iraq had beaten Jordan twice, which meant the final ‘home’ game against Qatar would determine which of the two made it through to the second phase of qualifying: Iraq had to win. 

Qatar wanted the game played in the Middle East but Iraq decided it would be to their advantage to play it as far away from the region as possible. They decided on Calcutta. With 14 minutes remaining it was 1-1, but then a bicycle kick from Karim Allawi turned the game their way. At the final whistle, there was a mass brawl, as 22 players squared up. Karim’s brother Khalil traded blows with Qatar’s Mohammed Daham and a diplomatic incident was narrowly averted after Qatar’s captain ripped an Iraqi flag. Bruised and enraged, Iraq went through to meet the UAE in the second round in September 1985. 

Iraq went to South Korea to take part in the President’s Cup, buoyed by the return of the vital defensive cog Adnan Dirjal but they could only finish in fourth place, losing on penalties to the Brazilian club Bangu. The Iraq FA then decided to name Akram Salman’s assistant Anwar Jassam as head coach of the Iraq B team, taking the second string to the Arab Cup in Saudi Arabia. There they won the title for a record third time and a month later followed that up with gold at the Pan-Arab Games. 

Iraqi football was on a high and the national team returned to training with a camp in Saudi Arabia, to play warm-up matches in Jeddah and Riyadh against Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s B team had beaten them twice in two months but even though Raad Hammoudi, Adnan Dirjal and Hussein Saeed were named in the starting line-up for the first time in more than a year, Iraq lost 3-1. A few days later they were beaten 2-0. 

The delegation returned to Baghdad for a dressing down from Uday Hussein and a few days later, Akram Salman and his assistant Ahmed Subhi, only appointed after Anwar Jassam had taken charge of the B team, were relieved of their duties. With only a few days before their first leg against the UAE, the veteran Wathiq Naji, a former first lieutenant in the Iraqi Army, was named as an emergency replacement and given the sole mission of trying to get Iraq through the second round of qualifying. 

The UAE were a solid and well-organised outfit managed by the Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira. For Wathiq Naji the qualifier was a grudge match: the two head coaches had history. Five years earlier, an Iraqi team led by Wathiq had met Kuwait, then managed by Parreira, in an Olympic play-off at a packed Al-Shaab in Baghdad for a place at the Olympic Games in Moscow. Iraq went 2-0 up thanks to a first-half double from Nazar Ashraf. But after an hour, Wathiq decided to withdraw Nazar and bring on a midfielder to protect the lead. 

Three minutes later, Kuwait were awarded what the Iraqis saw as a controversial penalty by the Malaysian referee George Joseph, who was later shot at by Saddam’s bodyguard Sabah Mirza, who accused him of taking a bribe. He was then interrogated live on state television and escaped Baghdad only after being beaten and robbed. 

Iraq crumbled after Jassim Yaqoub converted and Kuwait won 3-2. Wathiq could never forget the feeling of defeat or the sense he had made a dreadful mistake with his substitution. This was his chance to make amends. 

The first leg was held in Dubai. The incoming coach brought in two players from the B team, the ball-playing full-back Ghanim Oraibi and the 30-year-old centre-forward Anad Abid, whom the press had dubbed ‘the Arab Eusébio’. Anad started alongside Hussein Saeed and Ahmed Radhi in a front three. Adnan Dirjal returned to Iraq’s defence for his first game of the World Cup qualifiers. 

Just five minutes had gone when UAE’s Fahad Khamis diverted the ball past Raad Hammoudi in the Iraq goal after Adnan Al-Talyani had headed across the box. Iraq appealed for offside, but the goal stood. As the sun set, on the bench a worried Wathiq lit up a cigarette. Hussein Saeed latched onto Ahmed Radhi’s long-ball and beat the offside trap to lob the onrushing keeper to equalise after 29 minutes. But Iraq made the worst possible start to the second half as Fahad scored his second following a corner. 

Wathiq threw on Shaker Mahmoud Natiq Hashim, and was rewarded when Hussein Saeed came up with a second equaliser as a long free-kick from Adnan Dirjal was headed down by Ahmed Radhi into the path of the prolific Iraqi striker. Abid was sent off for a second bookable offence with 15 minutes remaining, but eight minutes after that Natiq popped up with a priceless winner. 

The second leg was played at the King Fahd Sports City Stadium in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, and was attended by Uday Hussein and the UAE president Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. Iraq reverted to a 4-4-2. With Anad Abid suspended and Ghanim Oraibi dropped, Karim Allawi played at right back with Shaker Mahmoud and Basim Qasim in midfield. 

Parreira’s Emirates side were noted for scoring goals early in each half and netted in the first minute, again through Fahd Khamis. The Swiss referee André Daina had been told by Fifa to stamp out any dissent or rough play and by half-time had already booked four players. Six minutes into the second half, the indomitable Adnan Al-Talyani looked to have crushed Iraq’s World Cup dream as he made it 2-0 and 4-3 on aggregate. 

But three minutes later, the UAE defender Khalid Abdul-Aziz was sent off after collecting a second yellow for kicking the ball away. Wathiq, with little option but to go for it, sent on Karim Saddam. Iraq dominated but as the clock ticked down, they seemed to have run out of ideas. With less than a minute remaining, the ball dropped in the box, the UAE defender Mohammed Faraj failed to clear and Karim stabbed an opportunistic finish into the net. As the final whistle blew, the whole UAE team fell to their knees and state television switched instantly to coverage of equestrianism so fans at home would not see their devastated players. Parreira called the defeat “the saddest day” of his coaching career. It would also be the last time Wathiq led his national team. 

The think-tank of the Iraq FA, comprising the academic minds of the FA secretary Muayad Al-Badry and the team manager Thamir Muhsin, believed the best chance of qualifying for the World Cup lay in the hands of an experienced coach. Their first choice was the Austrian Ernst Happel, who had led the Netherlands to the final of the 1978 World Cup, but despite being offered a hefty fee he preferred to stay at Hamburg. Next on their list was a Brazilian by the name of Jorge Vieira. He was not anywhere near the same level of fame as Happel, but Vieira had won a Carioca championship at 25 years of age and had more than three decades of experience in the Brazilian game. He accepted, and flew to Baghdad with an all-Brazilian staff, from goalkeeping coach to massage therapist. 

The Brazilian spent more than a month preparing the players under a strict training programme in Baghdad and even took them to Amman so the players could adapt to the astroturf pitch of Syria’s Abbasiyyin Stadium in Damascus where they would play the first leg of their final qualifying tie. 

The IFA wanted the away tie moved from Damascus because of safety concerns resulting from the political tension between the Ba’athist governments of Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. Diplomatic relations between the countries had been severed in 1971 and Syria’s backing for Iran in the war had exacerbated the situation. Muayad Al-Badry told the Gulf News agency that Fifa would be held responsible if anything happened to the Iraq team in Damascus. 

The Iraq government had broadcast every World Cup qualifier to that point, but decided against screening the game from Damascus live for fear that the 25,000 crowd would chant slogans against Saddam and his government; most people listened on the radio. Even the Iraqi national anthem played before the game was slightly different to usual with political references omitted. Before kick-off, the Iraqi chickens were attacked by a Syrian rooster and their blood scattered on the centre-circle as a banner was unveiled in the stand: “On to Mexico, O Syria, On to Mexico, O Syria.” 

The political rhetoric was far livelier than the game itself. Ahmed Radhi did have the ball in the Syrian net six minutes into the second half, but the French referee Michel Vautrot ruled it out for handball and the game finished 0-0. 

The Iraqi government chartered planes for fans wishing to travel to Ta’if for the second leg and in the end around 4000 travelled to Saudi Arabia. On the day of the match, Uday’s sports daily Al-Baath Al-Riyadhi, supposedly written by Uday himself, warned the players that if they lost they would have rotten eggs thrown at them by the public but promised great riches if they reached the finals in Mexico. 

The match was televised in more than 40 countries, including Brazil, Canada and Mexico. Both coaches made a single change to their team from the first leg. Vieira preferred the midfielder Shaker Mahmoud to Natiq Hashim, while the Syria coach Avedis Kolakian, who had captained his country against Iraq in the final of the 1966 Arab Cup in Baghdad, dropped Radwan Hassan Al-Sheikh for Mohammed Jaklan. This time, Iraq dominated their opponents and took the lead. Ali Hussein Shihab got into the Syrian box and crossed with his right foot. Ahmed Radhi missed the ball at the near post as he tangled with the keeper, but the ball ended up at the feet of Hussein Saeed two yards from the penalty spot and he knocked the ball into the empty net. “Goaaaaaaaaaal!” screamed the commentator and FA official Muayad Al-Badry. “Iraq have scored the first goal, our team has scored the first goal!” 

The second half followed a similar pattern. Hussein Saeed’s cross with the outside of his left boot almost set up a second for Ali Hussein Shihab 35 seconds after the break and Haris Mohammed then had an effort blocked by a Syrian defender. “45 minutes, I’ll kill myself in these 45 minutes,” said Al-Badry. But then came the second goal. Khalil Allawi advanced on the right flank and passed to Hussein Saeed, who dummied, leaving it to Basil Gorgis running into the box. The ball was half cleared but Basil regained possession and played the ball wide to Haris Mohamed on the right. His cross seemed too long but Ali Hussein Shihab headed down for Shaker Mahmoud to fire into the bottom left corner of the net. 

The Syrians brought on the midfielder Haitham Shehade for the defender Jihad Ashrafi and in their first attack of the second half enjoyed a touch of luck. Khalil Allawi lost the ball and although Marwan Medrati’s pass to Georges Khouri was intercepted by Adnan Dirjal, the Iraqi defender’s attempted backpass was picked up by Khouri who ran and crossed from the left to Medrati on the edge of the box. The ball didn’t get there, though, stopped by the hand of Adnan Dirjal: penalty. 

Walid Abu Al-Sel scored from the spot and Syria, from nowhere, were back in the game. 

Iraqi nerves, though, were soon settled. Haris Mohammed was fouled, giving Iraq a free-kick 35 yards from goal. Basil Gorgis stood with his back to goal with Adnan Dirjal and Khalil Allawi lining up to take it. Basil passed to Khalil and his shot flashed into the bottom corner. Al-Badry was ecstatic: “Goal, Goal, Goal, Goaal!” he shouted. “Khalil Mohammed Allawi, he’s done that 40 times in training, a goal for our team, we were in need of a goal, gooaal, goaaal, goal for the great Iraq, goaal, the third goal scored by Khalil Allawi... he’s done that 40 times, he does that every hour, goaal for Iraq, goaal for Iraq, 3-1 to Iraq.” It was a free-kick routine Vieira had worked on in training. 

After the third goal, Iraq passed the ball with great confidence. Hussein Saeed clipped the bar from the edge of the penalty area in the 79th minute after a well-worked passing move involving Shaker Mahmoud and Ahmed Radhi. As the clock ticked down, Iraq’s fans began chanting, “Mexico, Mexico...” 

The Syrians pressed, but to no avail. As Hussein Saeed had the last chance of the game, the final whistle blew. “Congratulations to the great Iraq,” shouted Al-Badry, “congratulations to the great Iraq and the great Saddam Hussein... our sporting war, congratulations to the Iraqi Army, our national team.” 

Qualifying for Mexico ’86 came at a poignant moment for one member of the team. Only days earlier, the father of Basil Gorgis had died suddenly, having suffered a stroke on learning that Basil’s 19-year-old sister, who had been arrested by security forces in 1979 at the College of Agriculture, had been executed three years later for her political activities with the Iraqi Communist Party. Every day after his daughter’s arrest Basil’s father would go to the police station to ask where she was. Finally, in 1985, not long after Basil had been given a car for scoring the winning goal in the final of the Pan-Arab Games, they were told the truth. 

When the plane carrying the Iraqi delegation touched down at Saddam International Airport, they were greeted by senior politicians. No fans were allowed at the airport, however, and so they were unable to recreate the joyous chaos that had followed the victory over Qatar in Calcutta. There was gunfire and jubilation in Baghdad after the qualification. “My plan was to get a win in Damascus and then on the neutral field,” said Vieira. “And that happened because Iraqi football is the best in the entire region. We have very talented players with a formidable team spirit, which is what had impressed me most since I arrived here. It is a very disciplined team and they applied themselves with exceptional responsibility.” 

He was still replaced at the turn of the year. 

Vieira was on holiday in Rio de Janeiro when his interpreter told him he had been sacked and replaced by his assistant, the 38-year-old Edu Coimbra, the brother of the great forward Zico. He was a victim of Uday Hussein’s campaign to provoke friction with the Minister of Youth and Sport, Nouri Faisal Shaher. The minister, understandably, wanted Vieira to stay on while Uday wanted Edu at his club Al-Rasheed. Uday instigated the change but his own daily sports publication Al-Ba’ath Al-Riyadhi blamed Shaher. 

Preparations for the World Cup began on 1 January. Iraq held two training sessions a week at the Al-Shaab Stadium, while players were otherwise based with their clubs. With Iraq at war, football offered some slight relief from the hardship of everyday life. Iraq’s warm-up matches before the World Cup, even games played at their training camp in Brazil, were all televised live on state television, with fans eager to follow how the team was developing. Crowds of 35-40,000 streamed to Al-Shaab Stadium to see friendlies involving the players who had taken Iraq to their first World Cup. 

Denmark came to Baghdad in late January and played two games, winning the first 2-0 but then losing by the same scoreline. In the second game, Zico, wearing a green jacket on which the word ‘IRAQ’ had been stencilled, performed a ceremonial kick-off with Hussein Saeed. Zico had arrived in Baghdad with his club Flamengo, which also featured Sócrates, Mozer and Leandro. They were in pre-season and had already played friendlies in Florence and Manama before facing Iraq. 

The game was Iraq’s hardest in preparation for the World Cup and was played on a windy February day in a packed Al-Shaab Stadium. Every seat was taken, leaving many spectators to sit by the side of the pitch. Within three minutes Bebeto had given the Brazilian side the lead and Zico wrapped up the win 10 minutes from time before being withdrawn to receive a standing ovation from the crowd. One incident from the game is still talked about today: Sócrates nutmegged Maad Ibrahim, who reacted by shoving him. Natiq Hassim tried to avenge his teammate’s honour by nutmegging Sócrates and, after several failed attempts, eventually succeeded to great roars from the fans. 

After Everton had rejected an invitation, Chelsea were the next side to visit Baghdad. Wearing an all-red away kit, Chelsea took the lead through Joe McLaughlin. Khalil Allawi equalised in the second half with a long-range effort before, after an hour, Iraq lost the key defender Adnan Dirjal to a serious injury after colliding with David Speedie. He was out for five months and missed the World Cup. 

Iraq also drew 1-1 and 0-0 with Romania, with the return of the veteran national hero Falah Hassan seeing 10,000 additional fans at the second friendly. They then headed off to Brazil, playing a host of friendlies, including one against Flamengo at the Maracanã. Iraq lost 3-1 but Ahmed Radhi became the first Iraqi to score at the stadium. 

Preparations seemed to be going well but Edu’s job wasn’t safe. Behind his back, the IFA had been negotiating with the Qatar Football Association to try to secure the release of their Brazilian coach, Evaristo, to manage Iraq in Mexico. The final warm-up games were played against an Irish League XI, who travelled with just a 15-man squad paid £200 a head, and the West German club Schalke 04. 

In the game against the Irish league, Edu fielded the veteran Falah Hassan and Ahmed Radhi in attack together for the first time and the pair shone as Iraq won 1-0 with a first-half goal from Ahmed Radhi. With the first-choice striker Hussein Saeed injured, Edu gave starts to the reserve players Jamali Ali, Emad Jassim and Rahim Hamed against Schalke with Falah Hassan in attack once more. Natiq Hashim headed the opener after a fine cross from the right-back Khalil Allawi. A penalty from Samir Shaker made it 2-0, but that was Edu’s last game as Iraq coach. 

The reasons for appointing Evaristo, who had secretly attended the match against the Irish League XI, were never satisfactorily explained. Uday said that Edu’s job had been to train the players to a certain level before making way for a more experienced coach, but that made little sense even before the practicality of a new man taking over a month before the World Cup was taken into account. At his first meeting with the players at Baghdad University, Evaristo told them that, in the time available, it was impossible for him to turn them into a team that could qualify for the last 16. All he could do, he said, was try to ensure they didn’t lose by too many. Edu had believed qualification for the second phase was possible. 

Evaristo made two major personnel decisions before the squad flew to Mexico to acclimatise, dropping the 35-year-old Falah Hassan and recalling “the big No.4 from the Gulf Cups” as he called him, the defender Nadhim Shaker. 

Falah Hassan was nicknamed ‘Seeler’ after the German Uwe Seeler, largely because both were bald, but in style he perhaps resembled more Johan Cruyff. At 35, he had lost none of his energy or enthusiasm on the field, and the roar of the crowd became louder whenever he got on the ball. He had come from the streets playing shaabiya football, and the fans saw him as one of their own. Falah became one of the highest-paid footballers in the domestic game and was regarded by the Ba’athist regime as a national treasure. When he broke his leg before the 1980 Olympics, the Revolutionary Command Council had him sent to London for treatment. 30 years on, Falah believes that it wasn’t Evaristo who dropped him but Uday, determined to deflate the forward’s reputation and popularity on the street. 

After the Gulf War in 1991, Falah left Iraq to live in exile having seemingly lost favour with the regime. His name was wiped from the media and not even mentioned when his former club Al-Zawraa celebrated their anniversary. An issue of Al-Ba’athi Al-Riyadhi listing the leading scorers in the Iraqi league left a blank space rather than acknowledge his 11 goals in 1978-79. 

Another player who was dropped, but with much less furore, was the 20-year-old Jafar Abdul-Hussein, who had made his one appearance for Iraq in the second friendly against Denmark. The midfielder from Saddam City had been a surprise call-up to the national squad and came on in the final five minutes of the 2-0 win. His rise had been rapid but so was his descent, the victim of political pressure brought to bear because three of his brothers and two other members of his family had been executed by  the Ba’athist regime for their political opposition to the government. 

The Iraqi delegation flew from Baghdad to Mexico City via Bonn, a journey that took two days. Security was tight, leading Evaristo into the crassly undiplomatic comment that: “We’re not afraid of terrorists or our opponents, but we are afraid of earthquakes”. A devastating earthquake had hit Mexico City seven months earlier, causing the deaths of at least 5,000 people. 

Iraq’s first game was on the fifth day of the tournament. They were the third of the three Arab sides to play and after Algeria had drawn with Northern Ireland and Morocco with Poland, expectations were high that the holders of both the Arab Cup and the Pan-Arab Games could achieve a positive result against Paraguay. 

When Adnan Dirjal was eventually ruled out of the tournament through injury, Evaristo had called up Basim Qasim to replace him in the squad. Surprisingly, he was selected at centre-back for that first game ahead of Kadhim Mutashar, who had played in every qualifying game. Basil Gorgis was dropped back into defence as Evaristo sought to impose an offside trap to try to reduce the physical demands on his players in the heat at altitude. “Anyone who wants to win any game in this country should play efficiently,” he told the press. 

After securing qualification for their third World Cup, their first for 28 years, Paraguay had been in turmoil. Their coach Cayetano Ré Ramirez had threatened to leave the job but was ultimately persuaded to stay, overseeing a run of 12 games unbeaten from October 1985 to the start of the tournament, many of them against Middle Eastern opponents. 

The match kicked off at noon local time in the Estadio Nemesio Díez in Toluca, nicknamed la Bombonera, the Chocolate Box, for its square shape and steep stands. This was a new experience for Iraq, who were used to multi-purpose stadiums with a running track separating fans from the pitch. Iraq wore an unfamiliar yellow kit. The national team usually wore either green or white and had sometimes worn red, but yellow was new. It was said the IFA had asked Adidas, the kit manufacturers, to come up with colours not worn by other sides at the tournament and they opted for yellow and sky blue (Brazil were the only other side with yellow shirts), but many believe Uday had insisted Iraq should wear the same colours as his club Al-Rasheed. Yellow, purportedly, was his favourite colour. Many players were irritated by the change. “We felt alienated dressed in yellow,” one player later said, “and we considered the sky-blue a heavy burden on us.” 

Evaristo pinned his team’s hopes on a solid defence marshalled by the centre-backs Nadhim Shaker and Samir Shaker, with the attacking full-back Khalil Allawi on the right and Ghanim Oraibi on the left. In midfield, the coach had Basil Gorgis and Natiq Hashim flanked by Haris Mohammed and Ali Hussein Shihab with Hussein Saeed and the 22-year-old Ahmed Radhi up front. 

From the first minute, Iraq looked at least the equals of the South Americans and they began to dominate the game. The mobile Hussein Saeed had an early left-footed shot from the edge of the area, after Iraq had worked the ball well around the Paraguayan box. But it was Paraguay who took the lead as Julio César Romero lobbed Adolfino Cañete’s long chipped ball from the edge of the centre circle and over the head of the onrushing Iraq captain Raad Hammoudi. 

In the final minute of the first half, Iraq won a free-kick on the edge of the Paraguay box. The defender Wladimiro Schettina was booked for encroachment. With the memories of that historic day in Ta’if fresh in his mind, Khalil Allawi stepped up to take it, but this time his shot was pushed wide by the goalkeeper Roberto Fernández. Ali Hussein Shihab took the resulting corner from the left and crossed to the far post where Ahmed Radhi headed in. “Goal! Goal!” screamed the commentator Shidrak Yousef. Iraq’s players celebrated. But the referee, Edwin Pikon-Ackong from Mauritius, had blown for half-time while the ball was still in the air. The coaching staff poured onto the pitch to protest, but it remained 1-0. 

That incident gave Iraq the sympathy of the crowd but it didn’t matter. The game ended 1-0. “He was a bad referee,” said Evaristo at his post-match press conference. “Not that he had bad intentions but did things that were bad for us, like when he finished the first half when we were in a good position. He did not allow the goal because he had signalled the end of the first half... The referee should have blown before the corner was taken or have let the goal stand as it came straight after the corner kick. The referee decided the result but I think we deserved better.” 

Hussein Saeed, who had been hailed by the world’s media as Iraq’s most dangerous player, had sustained an injury that ruled him out of the rest of the group games. For the second match, against Belgium, Evaristo decided to replace him with Karim Saddam rather than Rahim Hamed, who had come on in the second half against Paraguay. 

Iraq again started well with their quick passing game, but after 16 minutes Belgium took the lead after a cross-field pass from their captain and playmaker Jan Ceulemans found Anderlecht’s wonder kid Enzo Scifo free on the right edge of the penalty box and he slotted past keeper Raad Hammoudi. Four minutes later, Khalil Allawi fouled Frank Vercauteren in the box. Hammoudi was booked for protesting and Nico Claesen converted the penalty. Iraq’s players became irritated by the Colombian referee Palacio Jesús Díaz and crowded him after every decision. 

Six minutes into the second half, Basil Gorgis brought down Scifo after the Belgian had flicked the ball over his head. Ghanim Oraibi then stamped on Scifo, at which Díaz, presumably confused by the 1980s moustaches both sported, showed a second yellow card to Basil. As the red card was produced, he sarcastically applauded the referee. 

As a contest, the game looked over, but there was still time for a moment of history. After 57 minutes, Ahmed Radhi picked up a toe-poked pass from Natiq Hashim, nicknamed ‘the Iraqi Platini’, on the edge of the Belgian box and hammered a shot past the keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff. It remains Iraq’s only ever goal at a World Cup. 

And with two minutes remaining, there was even a chance for Iraq to snatch a draw as Haris Mohammed hit the bar from a position on the right. A point would have given Iraq hope, but two defeats meant they were out. The game had seen six bookings, five for Iraq, as well as the red card and, at the final whistle, the disallowed goal from the first game fresh in their minds, Iraq’s players lost their discipline and remonstrated with Díaz. Two of them were given two-match bans, while Samir Shaker was suspended from international football for a year after spitting at the referee. 

With three players suspended and four injured, including the main striker and goalkeeper, Evaristo had only 15 players available for the final game, against Mexico at the Azteca. The defender Maad Ibrahim came in as did the forward Anad Abid, while Basim Qasim, usually a defender, was picked at the back of midfield, where he had played in the second leg of the World Cup qualifier against the UAE, as Evaristo switched from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3. Mexico themselves were without the striker Hugo Sánchez but nonetheless won a hard-fought game 1-0, the right-back Fernando Quirarte getting the goal on 54 minutes, lashing in from a tight angle following a Manuel Negrete free-kick. “That should not have happened,” cried the commentator Muayad Al-Badry. “God, it should not have happened, a dead angle, why this way, why Fatah?” 

The team returned to no fanfare at Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. The players were not punished but the entire squad was assembled at the Conference Palace for a special televised programme to investigate and determine the causes of the defeats in Mexico. 

Nouri Faisal Shaher had been dismissed as Minister of Youth & Sport only days earlier, following a campaign against him by Uday, who had written columns, placed articles and leaked documents suggesting corruption to the media. Shaher eventually resigned after the World Cup exit, having been blamed for ousting Jorge Vieira and Edu, even though it was Uday who had been behind the decisions. 

That made Uday the most powerful man in Iraqi sport. Dressed in full Arab garb and headdress he gave a televised press conference at which he expressed his surprise that the team had not qualified for the knockout stages despite the first, second and third team in the group qualifying for the last 16 [the best third-placed teams from four of the groups went through]. 

He pointed out fatal tactical errors, clear in the performances of the players, and laid responsibility with Evaristo. His final words were addressed to the whole squad and Uday revealed that the FA had decided unanimously to end the contracts of the Brazilian coaches. 

Uday’s customary thawab and akab (rewards and punishment) method used at his own club Al-Rasheed were yet to be applied to the national side. The players of the 1986 squad were neither imprisoned nor tortured: that approach to international football wasn’t introduced until the early 90s. A few weeks after playing at a World Cup for the first time, the same players were gathered to play for Iraq – in more familiar green – under the semblance of the Baghdad Select XI in the Saddam International Tournament.