Strife-torn Iraq determined to make mark despite odds
By Tapan Mohanta
Kolkata, Oct 5 (PTI) A civil war and the menace of militancy has prevented them from playing many matches in run up to the FIFA Under-17 World Cup but then Iraq have proved that they can conquer odds and perform well.
Exactly a year back, they became Asian champions after beating bitter-foes Iran here in India and qualified for the World Cup.
A FIFA imposed ban meant they could not play matches in their country till May this year but that did not stop them from winning 2016 AFC U-16 Championship in a thrilling final in Margao on October 2.
After the FIFA ban was lifted, Iraq were able to play friendlies in three cities of Basra, Karbala and Erbil.
Qahtan Chitheer, the coach of the team, is relived that they had at least three matches under their belt.
"It's big issue for us but during the last five months we managed to get FIFA approval to play friendly matches. We played against Syria last September in Basra city. We are much improved and better prepared now," Chitheer told PTI.
Despite their liberation from the decades-long Saddam Hussein dictatorship in 2003, Iraq remained strife-torn and is fighting a battle against the Islamic State.
But it's football that binds them all.
"Our people are passionate about football and everybody is watching matches and to be part of FIFA world Cup after winning the Asian Championship is big honour," he said.
Talking about his team's inspiring win at the Asian champions, the coach recalled the tough times.
"Our preparations was not as we hoped but we did our best and the players were very good and focused during the competition which make me proud of my squad and well-deserved qualification.
"It was very strong and competitive match, Iran team was well-organised with talented players but we managed to win," he said referring to their 4-3 win on penalties.
Their maiden appearance at the Under-17 World Cup in UAE in 2013 had ended on a sour note when they lost all their matches in the group stage to finish at the bottom in Group F.
This time around too, they have been drawn in the tricky group F, which includes European U-17 runners-up England, South American runners-up Chile and seven-time CONCACAF winners Mexico.
"Every participating team is eager to be the champions of FIFA World Cup and to be honest the team we are playing against very strong (teams) and they want to go far in this event as we do," he said with a lot of confidence.
He further hoped that their boys would adjust to the heat and humidity which has been a concern for the Chileans also.
"The heat and humidity affect all players of the teams in Kolkata, but hope the players will be used to the weather before our first match."
All eyes will be on 16-year-old Mohammed Dawood who scripted their their historic feat in the Asian Championship last year after they had failed to find the net in the first two matches.
He made a welcome breakthrough against Oman in Iraq's final group-stage match, and then notched a brace against Uzbekistan in the quarter-finals and a hat-trick versus Japan in the last four to emerge top goal-scorer and player of the tournament in Goa last year.
"Mohammed is very good player also the other players are good and talented. Each match will have its own stars," the coach signed off.
Iraq will open their campaign against Mexico on October 8