Road to Rio: Iraqi footballers look to beat impossible odds again

Iraq's starting eleven pose for a group picture ahead of their AFC U23 Championship 3rd place football match between Qatar and Iraq in Doha on January 29, 2016. (AFP)

Few teams ever have to overcome the obstacles that the Iraq national team does. And yet still fewer continue to overachieve the way the Iraqi footballers do.

As the AFC’s only Arab nation at the 2016 Rio Olympics football competition, Iraq are once again looking to achieve success against seemingly insurmountable odds. Few of their supporters will remember a time it wasn’t so.

The Iraq-Iran war. Saddam Hussein’s reign. The Gulf War. Sectarian strife. Sanctions and sporting bans. Through it all, and despite expected downturns, Iraq always seem to deliver on the football pitch when it matters.

One triumph stands above all others.

In 2007, as the country was torn apart by sectarian violence, the Lions of Mesopotamia somehow roused themselves to win the AFC Asian Cup, gloriously beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final in Jakarta. That the win was achieved with a team made up of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds made it all the more astonishing and provided a fleeting moment of joy and unity to a war ravaged country.

Four years later Iraq made the quarter-finals, where they lost to eventual finalists Australia. At the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, they went one better by reaching the semi-final before losing 2-0 to South Korea.

Now, a new generation is emerging. At the AFC Under23 Championships in Qatar last January – a competition that guaranteed its top three teams progress to the Rio Olympic Football tournament – Iraq had to overcome genuine disappointment and heartbreak before booking their trip to Rio.

First came the devastation of losing the semi-final to Japan to a 93 minute goal. Then, in the the third place playoff against Qatar –a winner takes all clash against the hosts – Iraq went behind to Ahmed Alaa’s first half goal before, yet again showing their irrepressible spirit. Mohanad Abdul-Rahim’s 87th minute equalizer took the match into extra time, and Iraq went on to grab the winner through Ayman Hussein in the 109th minute. The last 10 minutes of extra time saw unrelenting pressure from Qatar’s young team, and some of the most heroic defending you’re ever likely to see as the Iraqi players threw themselves of anything that threatened their goal.

Iraq's forward Mohanad Abdulraheem Karrar celebrates scoring his team's equalizing goal during their AFC U23 Championship 3rd place football match between Qatar and Iraq in Doha on January 29, 2016. (AFP)

Iraq's forward Mohanad Abdulraheem Karrar celebrates scoring his team's equalizing goal during their AFC U23 Championship 3rd place football match between Qatar and Iraq in Doha on January 29, 2016. (AFP)

With the Rio Olympics only days away, the Iraqi public expects big things thanks to the emergence of yet another batch of talented players, several of whom now ply their trade in Europe.

“This new generation is the future of Iraq’s national side, with 10 of the 18 players from the successful side which finished fourth at the 2013 FIFA World Youth Cup team in Turkey,” Hassanin Mubarak, Iraqi football writer and contributor to Ahdaaf.com and When Saturday Comes magazine, said.

“The Rio Olympics could be the tournament where forward Sherko Karim announces himself to the Iraqi team after his Swiss club Grasshopper Zurich ordered him to return to Switzerland on the eve of the qualifying tournament,” he added. “This could be Sherko’s moment. There is also Çaykur Rizespor’s Dhargham Ismail and Ali Adnan of Serie A club Udinese who will strengthen the left flank, with Dhargham expected to play at full back and Ali on the left side of midfield.”

A history of overachievement

Thanks to the relentless political turmoil that has engulfed Iraq for nearly four decades, its senior national team, never mind the younger U23 squad, do not get the benefit of playing Fifa-sanctioned matches at home due to security reasons. It renders their achievements during that period even more remarkable.

In their excellent 2009 book “Why England Lose: and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained”, the football writer Simon Kuper and sports economist Stefan Szymanski, used statistics from 1980 to 2001 to determine the world’s most overachieving football nations. The results were eye-opening.

“[The] country that stands out most given what it has to work with is Iraq,” Kuper and Szymanski wrote. “If the country ever sorts itself out, then watch out, world.”

Since then, the country’s troubles have continued, yet Iraq have continued punching above their weight, putting to shame countries flushed with better funding and facilities, not to mention socio-political stability. Witness disappointing performances in recent years of two supposed football superpowers in England and Brazil, and the hysterical reaction of the public in those countries. By comparison, Iraq rarely, if ever, disappoint their supporters.

Grateful support

Laith Al Soufi, an Abu Dhabi-based Iraqi, has rarely missed a match that his nation has played in the last three decades. The Olympics in particular, have been a good friend to Iraq.

“As far back as Moscow 1980, Iraq has had a long tradition at Olympics football, with Rio being it's fifth participation,” Al Soufi said. “Of course, we all remember the class of 2004 that reached the semis at the Athens games. That group of players went on to lift the Asian Cup, against all odds, in 2007.”

While the 2007 triumph remains the apex of Iraq’s football achievements, surpassing even reaching the 1986 World Cup, Al Soufi and Iraq’s loyal followers are hoping the current crop of players can set in motion another cycle of success that will end at the World Cup in Russia two years from now.

“Like 2004, expectations are resting high on this crop of talented young players, who also reached the U20 World Cup semis in 2013,” he said. “An entire nation will be looking to for a good showing in Rio, and to go on to achieve the ultimate goal - qualification for the World Cup, something the generation of 2004 was not able to realize.”

A tactical approach in Rio

In Rio Iraq will have their work cut out to qualify from an difficult group. Alongside hosts and tournament favourites Brazil they must overcome a highly rated Denmark and South Africa. Like previous generations, coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad and his players will relish being underdogs.

“Throughout the qualifying campaign Shahad has played a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formation,” Mubarak said. “However during the training camp in Europe, with Brazil and Denmark in mind, the Iraqi coach has decided to play three men at the back and has named seven defenders in the 18-man squad, making his intentions clear, defending will be a priority at the Olympics.”

Mubarak believes a potential standout for Iraq will be playmaker Ali Husni, who recently signed for Turkish club Çaykur Rizespor, where Olympic colleague Ali Faiz also plays. The former Al-Minaa winger shone during the qualifying tournament in Qatar, and Shahad will count on him and main striker Mohanad Abdul-Rahim to lead the attack.

Iraq’s preparations have been extensive. There was a training camp in Munich, before the squad travelled to Brazil. There, they lost a friendly to Algeria before, on Monday, beating South Korea 1-0in Sao Paulo. The winning goal came at the end of the first half from captain Saad Abdul Amir.

“This is a pretty experienced group of players and Shahad has named three overage players that will slot well into his U-23 team,” Mubarak added. They are defensive rock Ahmed Ibrahim, midfielder and new captain Saad Abdul-Amir; and versatile Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya striker Hamadi Ahmed, joint top scorer in the Iraqi league with 12 goals alongside Abdul-Rahim.

Swindon Town’s Yaser Kasim will however be missed after not returning to the squad following talks with his club.

Should Iraq qualify from the group, expectations will spike that Shahad’s men can emulate ex-Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad’s team which finished fourth at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Mubarak is cautiously optimistic.

“This team does not have the flair of Nashat Akram, nor the goal scoring pedigree of Emad Mohammed and Younis Mahmoud,” he said, referencing the heroes of 12 years ago. “But what they have is belief and the Iraqi coach has commented from the first day he took over, that if his players do not show the belief they can win at this level then he would not work with them. The belief is there, his players just have to go out and produce the performances and results in Brazil.”

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