There has been a noticeable level of success achieved by the Iraqi national team at the youth level over the previous two decades. Iraq has previously finish 4th in Athens 2004 Olympics, 4th in the U23 World Cup 2013, amongst other successes with the U20 and U17 sides, both on a continental and international level. Contrastingly, the results of Iraq’s senior national team have failed to live up to the expectations of fans and analysts.
The 2015 Asian Cup campaign aside, where the Lions of Mesopotamia achieved a semi-final finish, the Iraqi senior side has had very little to talk about in terms of achievements post the 2007 Asian Cup victory. Despite the series of impressive performances from the youth sides during that time, the national team seems to be benefiting very little from those achievements. There are many issues involving why there has such a shortage of talent successfully working their way up to the first team.
In 2016, the U17 were crowned champions of Asia for the first time in its history after beating Iran in a penalty shootout. The same team went on to represent Iraq in the U17 World Cup a year later, and managed to make it past the group stages until they were beaten by Mali. Likewise, the U20 World Cup saw Iraq eliminated in the semi-finals having lost to Uruguay in a tight penalty shootout. Interestingly, several players in the U20 side were already playing for the senior team, such as Ali Adnan, Dhurgham Ismail, and Humam Tariq. Meanwhile, the U23 team were crowned Champions of Asia in 2013, then qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics after finishing in 3rd place. Later in 2016, the U23 along with three senior players represented Iraq in the Olympics, but failed to make it beyond the group stages despite the good performance against Brazil.
A major pressing issue that has been recently highlighted is the transfer of players amongst national team and the Olympics side. Many players currently featured in the Olympics side are already first team members of the Iraqi senior side, such as Amjed Atwan, Alaa Mhawi and Aymen Hussain. These already established players are therefore preventing other talents from being discovered. The U23 tournaments should be used for the development of fringe players, to gain experiences and eventually work their way up to the first team. Rather, players who already play at senior level are moving down to play at a level beneath the standards expected from them. Therefore, there is little to be gained from them playing at that level. Moreover, they are stopping other younger players from using the tournament as a pedestal to improve their game. Iraqi youth teams have been using the same players for several years, and not many chances were given to new talents.
It is common for a U23 side to have two or three players who are also members of the national senior squad. However, it is very rare to have more than that. In Iraq’s case, we would frequently have up to seven players featuring for the Olympics side who are regular starters in the national team. Between 2013 to 2016, the following players were all heavily involved in the Iraqi senior side whilst featuring regularly at youth levels:
- Mohannad Abdulraheem
- Humam Tariq
- Mahdi Kamil
- Ali Faez
- Mustafa Nadhim
- Bashar Resan
- Saif Salman
There is a fundamental flaw in the decision of coaches at the youth team level, which stems from a lack of planning from the FA. Rather than having a planned strategy to help aid the future of Iraqi football, there is pressure on the youth teams to succeed and to do so at all costs. This might make the Iraqi FA look successful in the short run, but the damage this has on the first team in the long run will by far outweigh any short-term gain. Having so few players coming through the youth team ranks will severely limit the number of players available to the senior side who are experienced enough to be able to perform well.
The experienced players who regularly feature for the senior side already have significant experience with the national team and would not gain much from youth tournaments. It can be argued that this will even hamper the player’s progression by having them face weaker opposition to those whom they might find themselves playing against at senior level. Players may suffer from delusions of grandeur and struggle to replicate their impressive form at youth level when in the senior side.
Meanwhile, there are other talents in Iraq that are not given the opportunity to play for the youth team and end up forgotten, which is a loss for the Iraqi football as whole. The youth teams should be working to build the future of Iraqi football through correct strategies by the Iraq FA. Rather than prioritising finishing in a highly ranked spot at youth level, in a squad featuring plenty of senior first team players, the FA must readjust its strategies. Instead, priority should be given to new talents and fringe players, who can feature at youth level and hone their skills until they are ready to make the step up to senior football. In the long run, this will allow the senior side to have plenty more players to choose from, since we’ll have the players already established in the senior side as well as the new talents being developed at youth level. This needs to be part of the FA’s bigger plan to improve football at youth level, by introducing youth leagues, scouting and media coverage of Iraq’s domestic leagues. Likewise, this is merely part of a wider issue that needs to be discussed involving the huge amounts of age fraud involved in Iraq youth football.