When Iraq produced one of football’s most remarkable underdog stories to win the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, their preparation for the tournament was marked by chaos and tragedy.

Sixteen years later and Iraq’s build-up could not have been better. The Lions of Mesopotamia won the 2023 Arabian Gulf Cup in January for the first time in a quarter of a century, added an inaugural Thailand King’s Cup to their trophy cabinet in September, and began 2026 World Cup qualifying with a pair of victories last month.

Hopes are now high among Iraq’s players and fans that Jesus Casas can follow in the footsteps of legendary coach Jorvan Vieira and emulate the achievement of the 2007 vintage. Midfielder Amir Al-Ammari has been a near ever-present under Casas and feels the team could be on the verge of something special.

“It is a huge opportunity to make history and right now we have a winning mentality,” Al-Ammari told Arab News in an exclusive interview. “The team will be ready, and everybody is willing to put in everything they can to win this tournament.”

Al-Ammari may have been born and raised in Sweden, but Iraq was never far from his thoughts. Two days after his 10th birthday, he watched with his father and brother as Iraq stunned Saudi Arabia in the 2007 Asian Cup final in Jakarta.

“I can still remember the winning goal of (Younis) Mahmoud,” Al-Ammari recalled. “I knew that it was a big result and a big tournament, but I was just happy for Iraq to win the game; I didn’t realize that it was this incredible moment for the whole country.”

During January’s Arabian Gulf Cup triumph, Al-Ammari, who plays for Swedish club Halmstads BK, experienced the passion of Iraqi football fans first-hand as the team beat Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and then Oman in the final in Basra.

“When I started playing for Iraq, our ‘home games’ were in Doha or Jordan — wherever we could play,” Al-Ammari said. “I had heard about the atmosphere in Iraq, but you only believe it when you see it with your own eyes. Before the final, the stadium was full before the warm-up and there were people outside trying to come in too.

“Playing that tournament in front of our people, our friends, on our home ground, and then with my family from Sweden, my parents and sisters, there too — it was a huge, special thing to win it in front of them.

“We hope it will be the same in Qatar as it is close to fly (there) and there are also a lot of Iraqi people there and in the other countries around the Gulf. We hope they will make it like another home tournament.”

Al-Ammari was given his international debut by Dick Advocaat in 2021, but the Dutchman struggled to get the best out of Iraq, with Zeljko Petrovic, Abdul-Ghani Shahad, and Radhi Shenaishil also coming and going before ex-Spain assistant manager Casas was appointed last November. The difference in the team since has been stark.

“We’ve been improving every time we come together, and I see players now wearing the shirt with confidence when before it felt a little like we just went out to play,” said Al-Ammari.

“The new coach has done amazing work, and we have the same core of players who understand how he wants to play. Everybody knows their role, we are a strong team, we don’t concede a lot of goals and we can adapt tactics to win games in different ways.

“There have been a lot of changes in small details that have made a big difference in the long term; it means we can focus on football and just play our game.”

Part of Casas’ approach to building his new-look side has been calling on the Iraqi diaspora, particularly in Europe. In Iraq’s recent World Cup qualifiers, players traveled from Portugal, Spain, Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and England to play.

Despite their different backgrounds, Al-Ammari insists he and his teammates have gelled well.

“I speak English, Arabic, and Swedish so I feel like, personally, I can communicate with everybody,” said Al-Ammari. “Obviously, we have some players who don’t speak Arabic so that can be difficult, but I try to take responsibility and make everyone feel welcome.

“We have still managed to build the relationships on the pitch, and I think that’s the beautiful thing with football; we might not speak the same language off the pitch, but we understand each other on it.

“It feels like one big family, and our training camps are always fun; we are laughing with each other and we are excited to come and play together for Iraq. And we keep in touch on WhatsApp between games; we watch each other play and support each other.”

In the upcoming Asian Cup, Iraq face Japan — perennially among the favorites to win the tournament — as well as Indonesia and Vietnam in Group D. Casas’ side beat both of the latter nations recently in World Cup qualifying, thrashing Indonesia 5-1 at home before narrowly winning 1-0 away to Vietnam.

Al-Ammari feels it was the perfect preparation for Iraq’s tilt at Asian Cup glory and despite the second match against Japan looking like a potential group decider, he stresses that the Lions of Mesopotamia’s focus is firmly on showing their credentials in the opening game against Indonesia on January 15.

“That (Indonesia) match is the key one for the whole tournament, and we have to take three points,” Al-Ammari said. “The performances in World Cup qualifying have given us a lot of confidence and I really think this team is ready.

“Of course, the Iraqi fans like to remind us about 2007 and tag us in posts on Instagram. The beautiful thing is that two years ago, the fans wouldn’t expect us to win the tournament because of our performances at that time.

“But now they believe, and we believe, we can achieve this too. We know that (2007) is a big part of Iraq’s history, but now we want to write our own history.”

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