Only a real sceptic would argue that there were no positives to be taken from the 2017 World Cup U-17 campaign that saw Iraq defeated by Mali in the last 16 round. However, it is important to acknowledge that the team that is supposedly the best in Asia ended up crashing in the final stages of the tournament. The last two fixtures against England and Mali saw Iraq conceding 9 goals and managing to score only the one consolation – a paltry reply given expectations following the comfortable 3-0 victory over Chile. Here, we have explored five reasons why Iraq did so poorly in their campaign:
– Professional Youth Leagues –
As with most of the issues plaguing Iraqi football, corruption and incompetence on behalf of the Iraqi FA have put a huge hamper on young players working their way up the national team. Quite simply, there are no professional youth leagues running in Iraq. Whilst Iraq’s other Asian competition excels in running youth leagues such as Australia, Qatar and Japan, Iraq are once again left behind.
The lack of youth football at club levels means that players are unable to hone their skills in professional and competitive environments, which would naturally prevent them from developing and enhancing their mental and physical abilities. Instead, players are only able to feature for first team sides in the Premier League at a young age. This often results in players burning out at a young age, or them not being able to gain enough playing time to continue their development due to the competition for places. Moreover, the constant issues surrounding the Premier League, such as delayed fixtures and overall instability will prevent players from developing in their prime years.
There will undoubtable be huge costs involved in setting up and maintaining a youth league. However, there are ways in which this league can be financed. It is possible that each province will be able to form its own side, which will then compete with other provinces in the region. This will allow the best talent in Iraq to showcase their abilities and continue their development. Undoubtedly, there are implications here but it would at least be a starting point from which expansion can take place.
– Philosophy –
For players to develop from youngsters to professional athletes, a great deal of guidance and training is required. The Iraqi FA lacks a footballing philosophy from which they can organise themselves. Asian teams such as Japan and Iran have recently excelled in the global stage through installing a philosophy in their game, from which everything else branches out.
Once a specific philosophy has been set in stone, any member of staff, whether it be manager, physiotherapist or player, will have to follow that specific idea of thinking. Through this, you are able to develop a fully functioning unit that understands each other.
The current Iraqi national teams do not play a similar style. Our U17 and U19 sides currently have two different coaches with contrasting ideas and footballing philosophies that are reflected in their tactics and training methods. This would impede any given footballer that is transitioning from the U17’s to U19’s. Rather than forming a path for players to naturally progress with age, we are stopping a large number of players from fulfilling their potential.
Similar to how Japan sought advice from Southern American sides during their footballing revolution in the early ‘90s, Iraq must also identify what philosophy of football they would like to adopt. From this, they must consult experienced coaches and managers who can help the Iraqi FA develop their own curriculum from which they can teach their players to play. This curriculum would be used to help players and coaches develop in a variety of instances, whether it is dealing with psychological issues related to football or technical aspects. It all comes back to having a solid footballing philosophy.
– Age Fraud –
Iraq needs no introduction to the issue of age fraud in the national team. In fact, it was well documented that a huge number of Iraqi players in their youth leagues are overage and not entitled to play in their respected teams. However, with the Iraqi FA keen to prove its success on a global stage, it allows and facilitates these players to continue hiding their real age whilst having a huge advantage on other nations.
It is no accident that we see a large number of youth players failing to make the grade at the national side. Whilst in the youth setup, they have a physical advantage over opposition players, due to their greater height and muscle composition. Additionally, they are likely to have a mental advantage as well, resulting from them having greater experiences from playing more football over the years. When these players are finally exposed to the national team, these advantages are absent and so the player fails to make any real impact. Additionally, when these players reach the national team, they are either at their prime and unable to develop much further, or they are actually passed it and therefore in terminal decline. A perfect example of this is Saif Salman, who was once touted to be the star of his generation and yet failed to make the grade.
The Iraqi government have not yet investigated this matter and are unlikely to do so in the near future despite calls for them to end this shameful behavior. Meanwhile, FIFA are unable to prove any unethical behaviour by Iraq due to their medical tests not being 100% accurate. Thus, players are able to fake their age by a matter of one to two years for the U17 sides, and by even greater margin for the U19.
– Expats –
Iraqis love their football and it’s a hobby we carry with us around the world. All across the globe are native Iraqis who have left their homeland and are currently pursuing careers in football, yet the Iraqi FA is unaware of any of them. Whilst some organisations such as Iraqi Professional Players are filling the void left by the Iraqi FA, these groups lack funding and are logistical means to connect every youth player with the Iraqi national team. There are currently players in Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Europe and North America who are eligible and willing to represent Iraq at youth levels but are simply unable to do so as a result of the FA not scouting or contacting them.
There must be greater effort from the Iraqi FA to identify young Iraqi expat footballers around the world and invite them to play with the national side. Who knows what gems we can uncover by doing so.
– Facilities & Preparation –
Grassroots are where footballers first find their love for the game and begin to develop into their own. However, with the lack of pitches and football equipment currently in Iraq, a huge number of young players are unable to take the first steps necessary to make their careers a reality. This is especially the case when looking at the tactical side of football. If you are a 12 or 13 year old footballer who has never played a game with an actual qualified official, or played on a grass pitch, how can we expect these young players to then enter world class capacity stadiums and perform under pressure?
Players must be slowly introduced to competitive footballing environments but with the shortage of facilities in the country, we are unable to fulfil the potential of thousands of footballers. Likewise, the preparation going into the World Cup U17 was equally limited. Friendly games against the likes of Syria and Jordan when going into a competition consisting of teams from all across the world is unlikely to provide sufficient preparation for the players or coach. Each continent has a certain style of play – a philosophy – so the Iraqi FA must organise friendlies and camps that including playing against countries from different continents. This will give the manager a much clearer idea of how his team is progressing, how they compare to other nations and the best means in which he can prepare for the tournament.
This article was co-written by Reda Al-Taay. Reda is a professional football agent operating in Sydney, Australia and works closely with numerous Iraqi players. You can contact him on Instagram, his personal email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or using the comment section below. We thank Reda for his contribution to IraqFootball.me and look forward to working closely with him on future projects.