Iraq’s exit at the hands of Mali in the last 16 round of the 2017 World Cup U-17 tournament may be considered a reality check given the nature of the defeat. Expectations were high going into India 2017, where Mohamed Dawood could lead the Lions of Mesopotamia to a respectable finish. The highflying forward was recently ranked by The Guardian as one of the world’s 60 best young talents in the game. Indeed, his goals had been pivotal for Iraq’s victory in the 2016 AFC U-16, where Iraq defeated Iran in the final via a tense penalty shoot out. The striker finished top scorer in the tournament with six goals and was also voted the Most Valuable Player.
The first encounter saw Iraq drawing with Mexico, with either team scoring the one goal. Mohamed Dawood maintained his exceptional record and bagged Iraq’s first goal of the tournament, dribbling past the ‘keeper and slotting into an empty net. Next up was Chile, who succumbed to Iraq’s bombardment of long balls to Mohamed Dawood. The striker netted twice, and had his final chance converted by a Chilean defender into his own net. Dawood failed to grab a hat-rick when he missed a penalty in the dying seconds of the game. Iraq sealed a memorable 3-0 victory over Chile and went into the final group game with 4 points from 6 and qualification in the bag.
A promising start would soon turn to disaster for Asia’s finest. Dawood picked up a yellow card in the first game vs. Mexico and was rested for the England tie. England piled on the pressure from kick-off with Iraq seemingly out of ideas for the entirety of the first half. England were unlucky to only take a one goal lead into the break thanks to a goal from Manchester United’s Angel Gomes.
Qahtan Al Rubaye had a simple decision to make as Iraq’s manager. Either bring on Dawood to chase a meaningless game, or keep him on the bench and risk his suspension for the next round. Qahtan made the wrong call and brought on his best player for the second half. With Dawood keen to impress and turn things around for his side, he went in with his all and managed to get himself booked in the process. Meanwhile, the quality between both sides really started to show. England turned on the pace with a simple touch of a button and bagged another three goals – England 4-0 Iraq. In truth, Ali Abadi, the Iraqi goalkeeper, proved himself to be a fantastic talent and one to look out for in the future. The result could have been far more humiliating given the abysmal defensive display by the backline.
With Dawood now suspended, Iraq took on Mali without their star player. A toothless attack that failed to register a goal against England was now expected to lead their team into the quarterfinals against a strong and talented African side. Inevitably, it was a matter of minutes before the Malians took a comfortable 2-0 lead with only 33 minutes played. The second half fared no better, with Ali Kareem’s goal proving to be nothing but a late consolation in an absolute drubbing. Mali looked fitter, technically superior and tactically advanced compared to the side representing Asian football. Two defeats on the trot, 9 goals conceded and only the one goal scored in over 180 minutes of football. The results saw the Lions of Mesopotamia defeated without so much of a whimper than a roar. The only silver linings may be that Iraq have uncovered two gems in Mohamed Dawood and Ali Abadi.