Seven years later, Iraq’s extraordinary triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup remains one of the greatest sporting underdog stories.
Against the backdrop of a war-torn nation, forced to play qualifiers and friendlies in neutral territory and with barely weeks to prepare for the tournament, Iraq improbably went all the way, riding off the crest of not only national, but global support for their ‘fairytale’. The juxtaposition of the win with the sobering reality back home was summed up by Younis Mahmoud, the Player of the Tournament, who said they couldn’t return with the trophy. “I wish we could go, but you just don’t know who will kill you,” he said.
In 2015, the politics and fighting in Iraq ravages on. To add to it, there is ongoing talk of corruption by the governing football body, and even suggestions some members of the squad have paid for their place at this tournament. It’s unfair to draw conclusions from paper talk, but it doesn’t paint a good picture.
To make things worse, Iraq had a completely disastrous Gulf Cup in November. Two losses and a draw, scoring just once – it was completely below expectations, and lead to the end of Hakeem Shaker’s reign. Shaker had taken charge of the U20 side at their World Cup, leading them to a courageous semi-final finish, and he had been slowly integrating many of the youngsters from that tournament into the senior side.
Fortunately, his replacement, Radhi Shnishel, has continued in a similar vein. From an original list of 50 players selected for a training camp whittled down to 23 for the tournament proper, Iraq have only four players over the age of 25. These are very talented players, though, and Iraq have the core of a squad here that can lead them in future tournaments.
They’ll use a 4-2-3-1 formation, but have played 4-3-3 in the past, and will play quite an attractive brand of football – they’re comfortable in possession, and like to work it forward along the ground through midfield. In that zone, they have two excellent deep-lying passers.
Yaser Kasim plays to the left of central midfield. A teammate of Australia’s Massimo Luongo at Swindon Town, he’s been nicknamed the ‘Iraqi Pirlo’. That’s a slight exaggeration, but one that does suggest he’s capable of long, diagonal passes. Shnishel has used a variety of players alongside him, but appears to have settled on using Osama Rashid – another good distributor who originally played for the Netherlands youth teams before switching allegiance. Other options in this position include Saad Abdul-Amir, who makes positive forward runs towards the flanks, and Ali Husni, a young, raw #8.
Iraq have lots of quantity and quality in this position, summed up by the fact Saif Salman was left at home. Salman was ever-present in 2014 but probably didn’t endear himself to the new regime when he got sent off in Shnishel’s first game in charge, a 1-1 draw with Kuwait.
At centre-back, the partnership of Salam Shaker and Ahmed Ibrahim seems to be the preferred combination. Shaker is a veteran of the side and can struggle with the high line that Iraq like to play, with Ibrahim more confident on the ball and touted as a a future captain. At right-back, Mahdi Karim, one of the last remaining veterans of the 2007 squad, was left out of the final squad despite playing throughout all of the calendar year. That opened up a position for either Samih Saeed or Walid Salim. The latter is very attack-minded, whereas Saeed is more of an all-rounder but not quite as good going forward.
On the left, one would have expected Ali Adnan, always named as one of Iraq’s best prospects and recently linked with a 2.5 million move to Spanish club Granada, to have locked down the full-back position. However, amidst rumours that Adnan has let himself go physically and lost concentration, Dhargham Ismail has made a late charge for the starting position, and seems to be in line to start against Jordan in the opening game. This is Iraq’s deepest position, and it’s rather a shame they can’t fit both Adnan and Dhargham into the same side.
As a unit, Iraq try to keep quite a high line, with the full-backs sometimes struggling to ‘step up’ at the right moment, which can keep opposition attackers onside. Furthermore, they’re very weak in the air – for example, Australia’s last five goals against Iraq were all headers, while they conceded twice from corners in a friendly against Peru.
In attack, he prodigiously talented Humam Tariq plays to the left. He’s been given the lazy moniker of ‘Iraq’s Messi’ because of his superb first touch, excellent close control and vision. Tariq drifts inside between the lines and tries to play ambitious through balls in behind, but hasn’t quite developed to the level some expected since making his debut at 16. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s manager Cosmin Olaroiu sent Tariq out on loan this season to try and get more out of the youngster.
Right-wing is a battle between Ahmed Yasin and Amjad Kelaf. Kelaf is more of an out-and-out winger and sprints past defenders out near the touchline, though Yasin has been invigorated by the departure of Shaker and might get the nod to start, if simply only because then Kelaf can be brought off the bench to use his pace against tired defences.
Completing the attacking trio will likely be Justin Meram in the #10 position. Meram, one of the few playing outside Iraq with MLS side Colombus Crew, is a powerful dribbler who likes to drive past defenders. He gives Iraq a very direct feel when he gets on the ball from that central position.
He’ll tuck in just behind Younis Mahmoud, the veteran of 2007 who seems to have been named as Iraq’s key player by every tournament preview. Undoubtedly, Mahmoud is a brilliant striker – excellent at bringing others into play by drifting towards the flanks – but he’s currently club-less, and at 31, might not be able to handle the physical demands of the group stage. Abdul-Zohra should get a run upfront at some point, though he is also capable of playing out wide or as a second striker. Marwan Hussein is a wild card – promising in the youth teams, but yet to score for the national team.
An interesting question mark is in goals. Jalal Hassan was first choice throughout 2014 but Shnishel has alternated between him and Mohammed Hamed, who started the last pre-tournament friendly against Sydney Olympic. Hassan should get the nod because of his experience.
Iraq have a good side on paper but are clouded by events off-field. Still, if Shnishel can get them playing their usual brand of smart, controlled possession-based football, they’re more than capable of progressing through the group, and maybe even springing a surprise in the knockout stage.