One of the many tragedies behind Iraq’s current security worries is one that is often overlooked. In a country that lives and breathes football, especially with the national team being the only source of happiness for many in a war torn nation, to be unable to watch your national team compete in front of the iraqi jumhoor (fanbase) really does put things into perspective. Every football player will tell you that performing in front of an empty stadium is soul-crushing. However, it’s difficult to imagine the sadness Iraqi footballers experience when forced to perform their home games on neutral ground. Having previously played in numerous other territories, it was now Tehran’s turn to welcome their neighbours as both hosts and visitors. Iraq were to play Iran in a friendly (away), followed by two World Cup Qualifiers against Australia (‘home’) and then Saudi Arabia (away).
Prior to any footballs being kicked, the controversy immediately flooded in. This time it was Justin Meram who removed himself from the national side shortlist by claiming political reasons had prevented him from traveling to Tehran from the USA. However, with today’s politics in full swing, it was hard to blame him for this decision and Radhi Shenaishil adopted a similar understanding approach. Justin is not available for the Saudi Arabia fixture either, despite previous rumours.
The friendly against Iran remained non televised, undoubtedly in an effort to minimise the upcoming opposition’s ability to gather valuable intel on the team’s tactics. Both sides battled it out with weakened squads but it was Saad Abdulamir’s penalty that separated the two. The national team captain yet again demonstrating his nerve and composure to coolly slot past the Iranian goalkeeper late on in the second half. Challenging Iranian opposition proved perfect preperation for the upcoming fixtures.
Similarly to the Iran match, Radhi Shenaishil adopted an unorthodox approach to the game by using three centre-backs with Dhurgham Ismail on the left wing with alternating options on the opposite side. Alaa Ali Mhawi maintained his right wing back spot in this case. The back three consisted of Ali Bahjat, deployed in his usual slot, Ahmed Ibrahim commanding the defensive line alongside newcomer Rebin Sulaka, who earned his first international start in Iraq’s famous green jersey. Radhi would have hoped that changing the defensive layout can provide a more solid core to the team and allowed either flank to bomb forward without risking exposure on the counter attack – a tactic which later proved fruitful.
The match started off cagey with neither side finding any rhythm to their play. Interestingly, Radhi’s men seemed reluctant to press inside the opposition half and afforded them time and room to pass the ball around. Instead, the Aussies were closed down as soon as they approached the centre circle.
Iraq provided the first real threat of the match as Ali Adnan picked up the ball on the left and delivered an excellent low cross to Mohannad Abdulraheem, who did well to test Langerak. Kalaf failed to read the block and reach the parried block. Minutes later, a long ball launched by Ahmed Ibrahim was knocked down by Ali Adnan, who yet again provided the assist. Amjed Kalaf, making his first appearance after a lengthy spell on the sidelines, was unable to convert whilst directly in front of goal. Careless finishing from the winger who really should have slotted home the first. Australia then responded with their own efforts, a long range shot by Irvine being turned over by Hameed.
The deadlock was finally broken on the 39th minute when Iraq’s old foe returned to haunt them. Mooy, who ran Iraq ragged in the first leg, this time setting up Leckie for an easy header directly from a corner kick. It was pitiful defending that saw the Iraqi defence chasing shadows – a straightforward corner kick, right from the training ground and Iraq were a goal down.
Seconds after scoring the first of the game, Australia nearly double their lead as Iraq’s defense is split open. Hameed rushes through and tackled Kruse before any serious damage is done. Iraq yet again prove vulnerable immediately after conceding, as has been the theme over recent years. The lack of leadership across the team attests to this, where a lack of organisation and motivation emergence once a goal has been conceded. Ali Adnan remained the only player spurring his side on after Australia had taken the lead. The side lacks a Salam Shakir/Noor Sabri character who can pick the team up and spur them forward. As of now, it’s all too Arsenal-esque.
Radhi looked to make an immediate impact at half time by bringing in Amjed Atwan in place of the out of sorts Kalaf. Adding another body in the middle of the pitch would allow the Lions of Mesopotamia to further dictate the midfield area rather than rely on long balls, as they had done up until that point.
A deep cross was well collected by Hameed, who played a good ball down to Dhurgham on the left. The fullback provided a deep inch-perfect cross from for Mohanned, but the striker sent his shot into row z. Not long after, Atwan’s perfect cross from the right bounced off Mohanned’s head and out for a goal kick. Times like these make you wonder how well this side would do with a natural goalscorer.
Ahmed Yasin and Hammadi Ahmed proved the last roll of the dice by Radhi, coming on to demonstrate Radhi’s desire to take something away from the tie. Two positive substitutions that paid off for the manager – something which he must be credited for. On the 60th minute mark, Dhurgham’s corner from the left was attacked by Ahmed Ibrahim, whose low header was well kept out by a diving Langerak.
Iraq continued the pressure and would have been awarded with a penalty had the referee not missed the blatant handball in the box by Degenek. Another game, another refereeing decision costing Iraq dearly.
Hameed once again proved the first line of attack for Iraq by launching the ball over to Ali Adnan on the left. His header found Hammadi, who returned the one-two. Adnan played a teasing ball across the box, which Ahmed Yasin slotted him superbly. The two substitutes involved in the equalising goal alongside Iraq’s stand out performer, Ali Adnan. 1-1.
“To score a goal and see the whole of Iraq brighten up today is just such a great feeling. It is indescribable” – Ahmed Yasin
A final opportunity of the game fell to Mohannad Abdulraheem and Hammadi Ahmed, both of whom failed to scramble the ball away as it bounced aimlessly away in the Australian box with seconds to go.
Although both teams leave with a point safe in the bank, Iraq’s chances of qualification look bleaker than ever before. A relatively weak Australian side proved a tough challenge, but Iraq should have converted the majority of their chances and taken away all three points. If there was one opportunity to beat the Australians, this would’ve been it. Ali Adnan, Dhurgham Ismail, Ahmed Yasin and Saad Abdulamir all had solid games and it’s a pity their efforts were not rewarded. Additionally, Radhi’s bravery with his substitution were a sight for sore eyes and proved he still has plenty to offer as manager of Iraq. He completely turned the game on its head after the first half and should have tasted victory.
On a bleaker note, the saga in searching for Younis Mahmoud’s replacement continues given the lack of quality up available up front for Iraq. There is a lot of work to be done yet but Radhi Shenaishil is the right man for the job.
Iraq’s next game sees them take on group leaders and sworn enemies, Saudi Arabia. Both countries will by vying for a win, but Iraq will also want revenge following the shambolic refereeing performance that handed Saudi a win during the previous picture. This one is more than just football – this one is personal. Yallah ya Iraq!