Director of “Lions of Mesopotamia,” Lucian Read, one of the very best—if not THE best— documentaries at SXSW 2024.

One of the more riveting World Premieres of a documentary at SXSW was “Lions of Mesopotamia,” directed by Lucian Read. The film screened on Saturday, March 9th, at 7:15 at SXSW. It outlines the victory of the Iraqi National Soccer Team at the Asia Cup in 2007, a win over Saudi, Arabia.


More importantly, the win is referred to as “the Miracle of 2007.” It was definitely on a par with the U.S. hockey team Miracle on Ice victory over Russia in 1980. That was a tremendous and unexpected sports victory, but it didn’t  take place against the backdrop of both an 8-long war (between Iran and Iraq) nor the March 20, 2003 invasion of Baghdad by George W. Bush. Civil insurrection then befell the war-torn country.

Iraqi National Team members, 2007, with participants in the film's interviews boxed.

Iraqi National Team members, 2007.

Players from the original team speak about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as we see the effect of the U.S. bombing (“Shock and awe”) of Baghdad. As the President of Jupiter Entertainment, which produced the film, Patrick Reardon said of the Iraqi team’s defeat of Saudi, Arabia in the Asia Cup Finals, “It’s quite possibly the most incredible heartfelt sports story that very few know.”

The players themselves describe how football (soccer)  was “an escape in life for the Iraqi people.” As one commentator says, “Other than that, what else is there to make the Iraqi people happy?” One player describes how, after sanctions were imposed on the country by the U.S., he and his family had, literally, only one shirt to wear. It was worn by the player to his practices, by his sister to work, etc. It was the only shirt they owned. He says, simply, “Football was all I had…We were sanctioned, tormented and starving.”

There is some history of the vicious treatment of the national team members by Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, who once made the team play soccer with a ball made of concrete, as punishment for not winning. The players describe receiving 10 lashes for a bad pass, 20 lashes for a yellow flag, being locked in “the red room” if their play was not up to the dictator’s standards.

Bombing of Baghdad, 2003.

Bombing of Baghdad, 2003.

Mashat Akram, a mid-fielder, is quoted, as are other players like Arwa Damon, Hawar Mullah Mohammed and their revered coach, Ammo Baba— a national figure in the sport who begged the occupying U.S. forces to give the country back its soccer field. The field had become a parking lot for U.S. tanks. U.S. envoy J. Paul Bremer did return the use of the soccer field to the Iraqi players. The result was a national team made up of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish players, the sons of sworn enemies battling in a bloody war, uniting their country in its darkest hour.

As the players relate, they were initially happy to see Saddam’s regime fall: “We wanted freedom, but we lost security.” Chaos reigned in the city, with blatant kidnappings, especially of soccer idols. Many players left the country as a result, but the team that was put together at the last minute and had only about 16 days to prepare under a new coach (he was only given a 40 day contract) felt that: “We all believed that the team was a symbol that the nation could follow.” After the regime fell, sectarian violence broke out in a civil war that caused the deaths of many. The players were almost ready to stop playing, due to the violence that occurred during celebrations of their victories. A mother who had lost a young son to violence sent the message, “I will not accept condolences for my son until the Iraqi team brings the cup home.”

That spurred the team on to victory. It reminded Iraqis that they are better together than apart.  As one former player said, “The goal sparked joy in wounded Iraq.”


Saddam Hussein statue falls.

Tearing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003.

There really is no “bad” to point out. It’s a tremendous film, emotional and inspiring. The footage of the fall of Baghdad is historic, including the infamous pulling down of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Eleven soccer players came together to heal their country when diplomats could not achieve unity.

Special mention should be made of the music (Mark Bartels and Jace Blayton), an underlying current of tension, culminating in a rap song that is part in English, part in the native tongue. The ending with a participant breaking down in tears over the import of the Asia Cup historic win is touching. The cinematographer (Adam Carboni) and editor (Lucas Harger) have done a great job  in helping bring Director Lucian Read’s little-known story to the screen.


See “Lions of Mesopotamia” when it inevitably sells to a streaming service. It’s great! If you’re also a soccer fan, you’ll enjoy it even more.  The historic significance should not be downplayed.  It shows how George W. Bush’s decision to take us to war on two fronts during his terms in office did not help the U.S. win  friends and influence people. As one participant says, “It’s horribly painful what’s happening in this country.” Many lessons can be learned about the need to stand united as a people, and not  allow any country to devolve into destructive sectarian violence.