Despite a gallant performance from Iraq, Japan prevailed in the AFC U23 Championship semifinal and have secured a place in the summer’s Olympic Games. The Iraqis will have one final chance to return to the Olympic Football Tournament for the first time since 2004, when they meet South Korea in the third-place play-off.
Saad Natiq, one of the impressive performers for Iraq in the tournament, headed the equaliser shortly before half-time. Japan’s technically-sound youngsters dominated the ball for long phases of the first-half, scoring through Yuyo Kubo on 26 minutes. Natiq's leveller at the second attempt appeared good enough to take the game to extra time, but Japan secured a late winner when Riki Harakawa lashed in a superb volley from distance.
As the game wore on, Iraq looked more likely to find the winner. Amjad Waleed, a short, creative hub on the right-flank, was providing the attacking impetus for the Iraqi Lions. Earlier delivering the cross for Natiq’s header, Waleed was the team’s standout performer. On 81 minutes, Mustafa Nadhim poked the ball wide, rushing perhaps Iraq’s best chance of the final stages before Japan struck in the second minute of stoppage time.
Iraq, winners of the AFC U22 Championships in Oman two years ago, has been one of the leading lights in Asian football at this level. Notwithstanding the 2007 Asian Cup win, the country’s only win in the competition, most success has come from the youth teams rather than the national team.
Four of the starting eleven to face Japan were part of that triumph in 2012. Nadhim, a towering and imposing central defender, has earned the honour of wearing the captain’s armband for his national team. The 22-year-old, who plays his club football for Naft Al-Wasat, was a runner-up at the U19 Asian Championships and featured at the U20 World Cup, a tournament where Iraq finished fourth in 2013.
Elsewhere, Ali Faez has shown promise alongside the skipper, whilst Mohannad Abdulraheem has been the sharpest attacking component of the team in Qatar. The tall, powerful 22-year-old, born in Baghdad, was Asia’s Young Footballer of the Year in 2012 in the months that followed the U19 title triumph. Mahdi Kamil has already played at the AFC Asian Cup.
Good responses, last chance
Iraq’s group stage performance was mature and professional. Yemen were dispatched 2-0 in the opening game - Faez and ‘No.10’ Ali Hosni scoring the goals. But from then on, Iraq had to come from behind in all of their other matches, starting with the 3-2 win over Uzbekistan in the second round of fixtures.
What perhaps turned out to be a crucial advantage was that coach Shahad Abdulghani could ring the changes for the final game versus Korea with qualification secured. Iraq’s starting eleven was built up of fringe players, seven of those who were featuring in the tournament from the start for the first time. In the quarter-finals, the extra energy would be invaluable.
After 1-1 in normal time against the United Arab Emirates, Iraq was on top during extra time and progressed through strikes from Abdulraheem and Amjad Kadhim. “We are progressing step-by-step,” said Iraq coach Abdulghani. “We are focusing on the next game which is most important. The main target is to qualify for Rio de Janeiro, this is the main objective, but if we realise this we will think about the final and it will not be bad to win the tournament.”
Fortunes for the full national team are slowly beginning to change. With two wins from four, qualification for the 2018 World Cup appears to be in a better state than the previous campaign for Brazil 2014. Iraq hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1986 in Mexico, but the credible showing at the Asian Cup last year suggests the West Asian side are one of the strongest on the continent.
Encouragingly, head coach Yahya Alwan has a promising group of youngsters waiting in the wings; some of then have even been core members of his national team to now. If the development process stays true, then Iraq might have cause for celebrations once again, just like the famous Asian Cup win in 2007.