Financial crisis-hit Iraq seek 2007 Asian Cup inspiration ahead of FIFA U17 World Cup clash vs Mexico
Last time the Lions cubs of the Mesopotamia, as the Iraq U-17 team is nicknamed, participated in a FIFA U17 World Cup they were made to retreat like a wet cat with a tail between its legs. The Iraqi colts had lost all of their matches in group stage, against Sweden, Mexico and Nigeria - the eventual first, second and third placed teams in that 2013 tournament.
This time around, however, they are determined to make amends. Head coach of Iraq, Qahtan Jathir reasoned, “It is different now that we are Asian U-16 champions of 2016. That was a different team from a different era. We had to suffer heavy losses from the other time we played. This time we are aiming to erase our previous image and do something different in this competition.
"We have won against DPR Korea and Japan and hope that the team will play as good as they have prepared for this international and important event.”
But then again, their bid to prepare well for the U17 competition was marred by tough conditions prevailing in their country as well as nagging financial woes. They wanted to go to Spain and other European countries who had qualified for this competition to give the young lads some much-need worldly exposure but it was not to be. Jathir rued “There were some issues because of the financial situation in the country, so our preparation was not good. We trained at home and could only play against some neighbouring countries.”
The media manager later elaborated on their preparation setbacks: “Due to the financial situations we had to be had to be content with playing within the Arabian region against age-appropriate National teams like Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and few clubs in the Middle East."
Nonetheless, they do have a skilful player in Mohammed Dawood who plays for the Iraqi Premier Division club, Al-Naft SC and was the highest goal-scorer with six goals in the U-16 AFC. Jathir’s face lit up upon hearing his name. He proudly let us know that “Dawood is one of the 30 best players in the tournament and I hope he will be the next star for the Iraq team.”
Jathir will hope Dawood would bring his A-game against an ebullient Mexican team. Accessing their first opponents for tomorrow's match, in what he termed as the ‘iron-group’, he said, “We have studied Mexico and we hope to overcome them."
The team are also drawing inspiration from their only other big success – the 2007 Asian Cup victory. “They are our role-models. We are in touch with them and they are also supporting us in our quest,” said a jovial Iraqi captain, Saif Khalid Shayyal, while speaking about the yesteryear heroes.
Incidentally, Iraq are not being taken lightly by the Mexican coach, Mario Arteaga, In the later press meet he considered Iraq as the "most complete team in this group", surprising the room.
This Iraq team are bent in making this opportunity count in more ways than one. As Jathir put it, “It is our pleasure to be the Arab representative in this competition. Football is now the messenger of peace for Iraq and for the world,” Iraq will have more than just the football pitch on their mind today.