At the start of the 2016 season, the Asian Football Confederation had declared that no Iraqi clubs had qualified to participate in the 2016 AFC Champions League. Naft Al-Wasat and Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, or Air Force Club, were then granted permission to participate by virtue of being winners and runners-up of the 2014-'15 Iraqi League.
Due to security measures amidst an ongoing crisis and a threat to the players, the two Iraqi sides, however, were not allowed to host or play any AFC Cup games in Iraq. The Air Force Club then went on to choose the 12,000-seater Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium, otherwise known as Al-Wakrah, in Doha, Qatar, as the base for their home games.
Iraq's oldest football club
Air Force in Arabic translates to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (pronounced "alquwwat aljawwia") and they are the first and the oldest professional football club in Iraq, started 85 years ago in 1931. As the name suggests, they come under the control of the Iraqi Air Force. General Anwar Ahmed Amin, the Iraqi Air Force Commander, is also the chairman of the club.
Although the oldest, they are not the most successful club in Iraq with their fiercest rivals Al-Shorta, or the Police Sports Club, being the first Iraqi team to win a major continental title, the Arab Club Championship in 1982.
Air Force are still moderately successful, having won 10 domestic titles, the last one coming in the 2004-'05 season. They broke their 12-year run without winning a major title recently when they won the 2015-'16 Iraq FA Cup for the fourth time.
They were the first champions of the rebranded Iraqi Premier League in 1974-'75 and are in second place for the most number of titles in the Premier League era, with five, tied with Al-Shorta and Al-Talaba. Al-Zawraa, with 13 titles, is on top while these four Baghdad clubs have dominated recent footballing history in Iraq. No other side has finished in the top four more than Air Force, who have done it 31 times out of a possible 40, indicating their consistency.
After securing a runners-up spot in 2014-'15, they could not repeat the same and could only finish fourth in the 2015-'16 Iraqi Premier League. They have won both of their opening league matches for the 2016-'17 season.
Road to Final
Though Air Force have qualified for the AFC Champions League in 2004, 2006 and 2008, failing to get out of the group stage on each occasion, this was their first foray into the AFC Cup. This is also the first time that they will be participating in a tournament final at the continental level.
Air Force were placed in Group C along with Syria's Al-Wahda, Palestine's Shabab Al-Dhahiriya and Oman's Al-Oruba. They finished first in their group, winning five out of their six matches and scoring 15 goals in the process, conceding seven.
However, five of those goals came in a 5-2 reversal against Al-Wahda away from home as the Air Force defence crumbled in front of the opposition attack. They played a high line, affording the home team way too much room and space in the penalty box and were duly made to pay for some poor defending.
They have found the net in all of their 11 matches in this tournament so far and have scored 26 goals, behind only defending champions Johor Darul Ta'zim of Malaysia. They are also known to concede a fair few, letting in 12 goals, managing four clean sheets.
In the round of 16, they beat Al-Wehdat 2-1 before turning on the style to put four goals past a formidable Al-Jaish in their own backyard, winning the quarter-final tie 5-1 on aggregate.
Their most impressive win came in the 3-2 defeat of Lebanon's Al-Ahed after going behind twice, only to hit back on each occasion and win the tie through a goal by Bashar Resan.
Manager Basim Qasim hailed his side's great spirit and attitude in the aftermath of the victory. "We had a big will to win, especially in the final third of the match, and we played with five players in the frontline. We proved that we are a strong team and we managed to get an important victory against a strong side who have had an excellent performance in this competition," he said.
Physical style of play
The Iraqis play a no-nonsense, direct, long-ball style, often launching balls beyond opposition defenders for their strikers to chase down and love a cross or two from the wings into the box. They are also very deadly from set-pieces, and look to put the ball in the box for their tall players to try and score.
The main threat to Bengaluru's defence will come from lethal finisher, Hammadi Ahmed, who has netted 15 goals in the competition so far and leads the tournament's scoring charts, seven ahead of his nearest competitor. In contrast, Bengaluru have scored a total of 17 goals in the tournament.
Ahmed is not exceptionally tall, but the Iraqi international is an adept fox-in-the-box and cannot be afforded any time on the ball at all. Suspended for the first leg of the semis, he has scored in every knockout game that he has appeared in this tournament. Another forward, Samal Saaed, a 69-cap veteran of the Iraqi national team, is suspended for the final following a second yellow card in the second leg.
This Air Force side is filled with internationals and they possess two of the most exceptional talents not only in Iraqi football, but Asian football.
The first, Resan, struck the winning goal in the semi-final and is just 19, having made his senior team debut at 14, becoming the youngest player in the history of the club. He got himself recklessly sent off in the dying minutes of the game and will be a big miss for Air Force, having scored four goals in the tournament.
The other, Humam Tariq, has already notched up 33 national-team appearances by the mere age of 20 and is an attacking midfielder with good vision and a fierce shot. Tariq made his debut for Iraq at the age of 16, becoming the youngest man ever to wear the national team jersey.
All in all, Bengaluru FC have their work cut out. They come up against a spirited side that has made light of all domestic strife and other difficulties to make it all the way to the summit clash.
Their levels of motivation against such a bunch will be key to them overcoming the fantastic story that is Iraq's Air Force Club.