Air Force Club: Flying high on hopes and dreams

Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, known as Air Force Club outside of Iraq, is one of the most supported Iraqi clubs. It has a chance to add a continental trophy to its cabinet and spread cheers in the strife-torn Iraq when it takes on Bengaluru FC in the AFC Cup final on Saturday.

Air Force Club celebrating after the 3-2 AFC Cup semifinal second leg win over Al-Ahed in Beirut recently.   -  AFC

The Baghdad-based Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya is the oldest football club in Iraq. Founded by a group of Iraqi flight policemen on the British Royal Air Force Base of Hinaidi, it’s known as Air Force Club outside of Iraq. Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya is the Arabic term for Air Force.

The club was officially founded on July 4, 1931 under the rather unusual name of ‘Gipsy Moth’, which happens to be a 1920s style British two-seat touring and training aircraft. Al-Jawiya played its first game the next day against a team from the Habbaniya RAF base and won. The win over the Brits helped the club surge in popularity as it acquired fans from across Iraq.

To this day, it’s one of the most supported Iraqi clubs, embellished as it is with numerous domestic club honours – five Iraq Premier League titles (last in 2004-05), four Iraq FA Cup titles (last in 2015-16) among others. When it takes on Bengaluru FC in the AFC Cup final at the Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium here on Saturday, it even has a chance to add a continental trophy to its cabinet.

But for the club, the significance of the match goes beyond the record books. A war-ravaged and strife-torn Iraq has meant that it has had to play all its AFC Cup home games in Doha. Hence, a win will mean a healing touch more than anything else.

“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.”

The club’s assistant coach Mehdi Jassim, himself a former Iraqi national player, pointed out how the various crises which have hit the country intermittently over the past two-and-a-half decades have severely dented football development.

Iraq qualified for the 1986 World Cup and in 2007 won the Asian title beating heavyweights Saudi Arabia in the final. But fruits of these successes seem to have been frittered away.

“In the 1980s, Iraq won against Japan, against Korea,” the 58-year-old said. “We beat all teams from Asia. We were a top team. In 1982 Asian Games we won the gold medal. In 1983, I even played in India with my club side. I stayed in Bombay and it was very good. We won!”

“But this war has overshadowed most successes. Now all teams starting from under-15, under-17 can’t even play in Iraq. It may be in Qatar, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait. But not in Iraq.”

According to Jabbar it has inevitably led to talent drain. “Some good coaches, some good players all moved out of Iraq because of the fear,” he said.

One man though who has stuck with the club is the 28-year-old midfielder Zahir Midani from Syria, another problem-ridden area. He has been with Air Force Club for the past five years and also scored in his side’s 1-1 draw against Lebanese Club Al Ahed in the AFC Cup semifinal first leg.

“When we play in Iraq we have thousands supporting us,” Midani said. “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.”

“All the people back in Baghdad, those on Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, they all wish us good,” said Jassim while reading out messages from his phone. “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.”

Irrespective of the success though Jabbar believes things will soon get better.

“Baghdad and the south of Iraq are stable now. There is problem only in Mosul in the north. In one month even that will be okay. Safety will return. We will then need time to make new stadiums and show some development so that the FIFA agrees to stage matches again.”

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