They say insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again, but expecting to see a different outcome. By that very definition, it’s clear that everyone managing the Iraqi national team is suffering with a mental disorder to some extent. Against a poor UAE team, Iraq somehow still struggled to do the basics right despite two convincing wins in the group stages of the Gulf Cup 23.
Both Iraq and UAE met at the Asian Cup back in 2015, where the game ended 3-2 in favour of UAE. Iraq lost the third place playoff after initially leading in the game. Here we are in 2018, barely able to string passes together against a team we should be beating comfortably. Yes, this is not a FIFA recognised tournament and a huge number of expat players were missing, such as Ali Adnan, Justin Meram and Beshar Resan. This is due to their clubs not releasing them for the competition. Despite this, Iraq should at the very least be challenging a team like UAE given the abundance of talent available to the manager.
A promising start to the group stages saw Iraq fight back against Bahrain in the dying seconds to secure a 1-1 draw, courtesy of Mohannad Abdul-Raheem’s header from Hussain Ali’s cross. The second fixture saw Iraq once again coming back from a goal down against Qatar. It took an Ali Faez thunderstrike freekick to level things, only for Ali Hosni to score the winner from close range late in the second half. Against Yemen, a country in absolute turmoil, Iraq managed to win convincingly with a 3-0 victory. Ali Hosni gave Iraq the lead, followed by an Ali Faez penalty. Mehdi Kamil finished well to seal the victory for Iraq, who topped their group with 7 points.
Hussain Ali, the youngster plying his trade for Al-Zawra’a, won three consecutive Man Of The Match awards after dominating the opposition with his clever movement and exceptional dribbling. He was later involved in controversy following statements made in a video that went viral. The 21 year old claimed to not have received any rewards for his MOTM performances. It later appeared that players were to receive a sum of 1000 Kuwaiti Dinars for every MOTM performance they achieved. The situation was later clarified and the player acknowledged his error.
Bahrain, UAE, Oman and Iraq were the four sides to qualify to the semi finals of a Gulf Cup that lacked any real quality across the board. More was expected, especially of Saudi Arabia, who were the only team amongst the 8 Gulf sides to qualify for the World Cup in Russia 2018. Instead, Saudi Arabia went crashing out in the group stages, leaving Iraq as favourites to bring home the trophy.
Despite a promising start to the tournament, Iraq were left hapless against a UAE side that simply had a greater desire to win. The manager started off with an attacking mentality but resorted to a more cautious approach later, when he should have done the complete opposite. Ideally, he would have started with Saad Abdulamir in a midfield three.
From kick off, they won every 50:50 challenge and were the first to every loose ball. Meanwhile, the Iraqi players took far too many touches on the ball – especially at the back – and were fortunate not to be punished late on in the first half, when their post was struck. It was a tight affair but the game went into halftime still at 0-0. There was no urgency or purpose in the team’s play and they failed to create any real chances throughout the game.
The manager’s tactics were predictable and completely wrong. Benching Rebin Sulaka and bringing in Ali Behjat was disastrous, as it meant that the was an immediate disconnection between the defence and midfield. Rebin is technically good and often carries the ball out of the back, which helps transition the ball to the midfield.
Having Saad Abdulamir on the bench was also a major misjudgement from the manager, who started with Mehdi Kamil and Amjed Atwan in central midfield. Both players are similar in style and failed to offer anything in the middle for Iraq. Their poor movement meant that the defence struggled to play the ball out of the defence and ended up resorting to long balls, which were easily dealt with by the UAE defence. They should have made themselves available for the ball more often, which would create space for the defenders to pass the ball forward instead of launching it to Aymen Hussain. Instead, Aymen Hussain was isolated up front and was left to work with scraps.
Ali Hosni and Hussain Ali were the only players trying to create anything in the game but both looked confused as to where they should play on the field. Quite similar in style, they were often seen fighting each other for the ball in a compact pitch. UAE pressed well and closed any pockets of space that Hosni and Hussain Ali would have popped up in. It was a brilliant tactical performance for Zaccheroni’s men.
The side looked desperate for an orthodox winger, to hug the touchline and stretch the opposition. Instead, Hummam Tariq was lost in the game and offered nothing going forward. How Hummam is still this heavily involved in the national team is beyond me. He offers next to nothing and is often a liability, as we would later find out when he skied his penalty wide.
Iraq’s only real chance all game came from Alaa Abdulzahra, whose looping header from a Saad Abdulamir cross was cleared off the line. It was the only notable chance Iraq had all game and came in extra time. Ali Hosni’s individual run was also excellent, but his shot failed to test the UAE ‘keeper. Jalal Hassan kept Iraq in the game with a superb save in the dying seconds of the second half, turning a low-driven shot out. Neither side was able to win the game in extra-time and so the game went to penalties.
Alaa Abdulzahra was the first to step up. His poor penalty was easily saved and the veteran will hopefully finally retire once and for all from the national team. Although he’s a respected figure in the dressing room, the player offers very little and it’s incredible to see him picked so regularly in the national team ahead of the likes of Ahmed Yasin.
Saad Abdulamir took the second penalty and pulled off a cheeky panenka penalty in honour of Younis Mahmoud. This was made even more impressive as UAE were leading with their penalty. Next stepped Hummam Tariq, a player who is somehow always present in the national team despite being an atrocious footballer. It wasn’t surprising to see his penalty fly into the crowd and take Iraq’s hopes of winning the Gulf Cup with it. Amjad Atwan’s well taken penalty was not enough to keep the Iraqi dreams alive and a disappointing performance was capped by Jalal Hassan letting in two poorly taken penalties in the shoot out.
Basim Qasim’s men were defeated and the manager must take a huge share of the blame for the poor performance. Not only did he get his tactics all wrong, but he also placed the team under unnecessary pressure by declaring he will leave his job as national team manager after the Gulf Cup.
However, what really hurts about this loss is knowing that Iraq has still yet to learn from it’s mistakes. The team has regressed and we’re still unable to do the basics right – passing, moving into space, passing again. The only time Iraq have looked promising is when Saad Abdulamir has started with either Yasir Kasim or Brwa Nouri.
Although this competition means a huge number of expats are unavailable, it has very little implications for the national team due to the way we treat our expat players. The side we saw today will not be far off from the side that will feature in the Asian Cup a year from now. We continue to see the majority of expats still not being given chances with the national team despite there being a huge number of high quality players available for selection. Is Mehdi Kamil better than Osama Rashid? No chance. Why has Jakub Yunis yet to be given a single game instead of tried and tested failures such as Muhanned Abdul-Raheem and Alaa Abdulzahra? Where is Shwan Jalal? The expat is light years ahead of Jalal Hassan and has made only a few friendly appearances for Iraq.
We’re continuing to make the same errors and there is very little hope for Iraqi football unless there is a complete overhaul of the way things are run in the national team – starting with the corrupt FA. We need to be honest with ourselves and realise that nothing will ever change unless we completely transform our outlook on expat players and start giving them equal opportunities. Only then will Iraq have any chance of competing in the 2019 Asian Cup.