5 Talking Points From The 2019 Asian Cup: Painful Reflection On Iraq’s Gradual Decline As An Asian Footballing Force

Thrown into an impossible task, Katanec took a broken squad and created a unit capable of challenging the best in Asia. No doubt, Iraq could have performed better, but given the circumstances and expectations around the national team only a few months ago, there are still plenty of positives to take away from the four games played in the 2019 Asian Cup.  We have listed 5 key talking points below:

1 – The Rise of Meme

Mohanad Ali has the ability to score goals at an international level, but he needs much more support in order to shine on the global stage. Iraq may need to find a provider on the flanks if Katanec wants to play a three-man attack, with Mohanad as the lynch-pin and two wide players. Ali Husni has his injury problems and Humam Tariq is better dropping into deep areas instead of playing as an old fashioned winger. Iraq has options but it will depend on the direction Katanec wants to take. There was an over reliance on wing play across the tournament, which resulted in minimal service being provided for Mohanad down the middle of the park. He has shown all the attributes and qualities needed to be a top player, but Iraq failed to support him by playing centrally and feeding him good through balls. Who knows how good he can be for Iraq if he would actually received proper assistance from the midfield rather than having to rely on himself the whole time.

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Meme Had To Create Everything For Himself

2 – Midfield Struggles

Katanec needs better options in midfield. Safaa Hadi and Amjad Atwan have shown they can battle in midfield, but they lack in experience and the ability to dictate play against tough opposition, meaning the backline is often exposed on the counter attack. Iraq has been missing a Qusai Munir style workhorse for years now and there has not been one player who has come close to replacing him, despite Qusai retiring and hanging up his boots nearly a decade ago. Rewan Amin would be an option but will the Iraq FA break their 4-player expatriate quota? It’s highly unlikely given the current situation. This tournament would have been vastly different had the likes of Rewan and Brwa Nouri been given a fair chance at representing their homeland.

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Brwa Announced His International Retirement Shortly After Being Snubbed For The 2019 Asian Cup

3 – Excluding The Expats

Osama Rashid and other expatriate players must be given an equal opportunity to represent Iraq compared to their local league counterparts. Osama has been linked to Valencia in La Liga and made his debut almost a decade ago under Wolfgang Sidka, yet, despite him being one of only a few Iraqi players to play professionally in the top divisions of Europe, he has appeared just 20 times for Iraq. Meanwhile, the likes of Humam Tariq and Amjad Atwan have over 50 and 30 appearances for the Lions of Mesopotamia respectively. Both are good players in their own right, but they have been given numerous opportunities to impress and have not been axed the moment they have had a bad performance. It’s only for this reason that they have now been able to grow as footballers.

There clearly is a preference for local players, because expatriate players do not get the same amount of playing time or even opportunities. Iraq will continue to lose out on quality footballers if they do not use these talents correctly. Whilst other footballing nations such as Algeria, Morocco and Iran have successfully made the transition of selecting ‘expatriates’ smoother, the Iraqi FA has continued to go to war against its own expats. Despite experimenting with expats since 2011, the FA have failed in bleeding these players in successful because they are not treated well nor given the same opportunities as their teammates. Only Ahmed Yasin has bucked the trend because he is well-loved and has a vast following on social media. When he was benched or dropped for no apparent reason under Hakim Shaker and even Yahya Alwan, there was an outcry and the Iraq FA is always known to appease those cries. Giving expatriate players an even playing field is necessary for the Iraqi national team to compete at the top level in Asia once more.

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Humam Is Only Now Showing His Worth As A Player, But He Has Received Numerous Opportunities To Help Him Grow

4 – Iraq’s Gradual Decline As An Asian Giant

Just over twenty years ago, Iraq completed in the 1996 Asian Cup, as a nation whose citizens were living under crippling UN sanctions. The Republic of Iraq was seen as a pariah state after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War. The Iraq FA was suspended for two years from playing international football and after it returned, the Iraqi national team were rarely invited to take part in international tournaments as it was shunned by neighbouring Arab countries. When Iraq qualified for the Asian Cup finals, their players got their opportunity to play in an international tournament and despite fielding an inexperienced team, the Iraqi side were still considered one of the top nations on the Asian continent and reached the quarter-finals in the UAE before being knocked out in dramatic style by a thunderous Golden Goal free-kick in extra-time. Fast forward to 2019 and Iraq, now with the moniker of ‘Lions of Mesopotamia’, are finding it difficult competing against the likes of Vietnam and Qatar, who in 1996 had not even qualified for the Asian Cup. These are signs that other nations have caught up, whilst Iraq has gradually declined as a major football force in Asia.

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How Different Would This Tournament Have Been If Not For This Goal?

Not since 2008 have Iraq beaten any of the top footballing nations in Asia. Honestly speaking, we barely beat a Vietnam side that could have won on any other day, we defeated a shockingly poor Yemen side, drew with a weakened Iran side that rested many key players, and have now lost to Qatar – two wins in four. The eight-year war with Iran and wars in 1991 and 2003 have decimated the foundations of what made Iraq a competitive footballing nation in Asia. The city of Basra, who had a select team so strong that it has beaten Iraq’s national team 5-0 in the 1970’s, no longer has the school physical educational system with basketball courts and football pitches, nor facilities it had even during the 40’s and 50’s. The Iraqi FA and sports authorities have failed to rebuild or restructure football in Basra and it is the same for other provinces in Iraq. The Iraq FA’s own youth teams from under 14 to 17 is formed primarily of Baghdad based youngsters, as the talents in the provinces get neglected because of the FA’s inability to house provincial players in team hotels or proper accommodation. Iraq at present lacks vision and is seeing other countries slowly advancing ahead of them.

5 – Bassam Al-Rawi’s Revenge

Bassam Alrawi is a name discussed by few over the last few years. He was one of the standout graduates from the Aspire Academy and, at a relatively young age, had loan stints at Celta Vigo in Spain and Eupen in Belgium – great things had been predicted for him. The Iraqi-born central defender who can also play in midfield, was offered to the Iraqi FA some five years ago. His father, Husham Ali, was a central defender – of similar ilk to his son Bassam and a former Iraq U-19 and national team player in the 1990s. He had wanted Bassam to represent Iraq and progress through the youth ranks at the Iraq FA, but like many fathers whose sons had gone through youth systems in other countries, the Iraq FA refused. The door was shut closed by the Iraq FA for the young Bassam and in 2019, after being given the opportunity in Qatar, the player stepped up and hit a free-kick that knocked out his own country.

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The Irony Of Iraq

He has been called a traitor for disrespecting the country of his birth due to the manner in which he had celebrated the goal. Yet, despite scoring the goal that knocked out Iraq, many Iraqis will still claim he would have never been good enough to play for Iraq. Like many Iraqi expats, the player is dismissed without even being offered a real chance to prove his worth. There is a valid reason why Bassam went to play for Qatar and why he celebrated in the manner he did, whether we like it or not. He was never given the opportunity to even train in the Iraq FA youth system and was treated as a foreigner. Shunned by his own country for having progressed through the youth system of a foreign country, this was his reply to officials in the Iraq Football Association, who do not see an Iraqi player but an expatriate or local player.

There are many players like Bassam Alrawi that get turned away by the Iraq FA. Even Ahmed Yasin was initially refused to play for the Iraqi U-17 side and only got the chance at U-23 level under Radhi Shanaishel, a coach who has helped several ‘expatriate players’ to adapt into the international fold and be given a fair chance. These players should be given the support but the Iraq FA and other coaches within the FA system treat them as if they came from Mars and class them as second-class citizens. Instead of supporting them and utilising  their talents, they’re shunned and turned away. Bassam Alrawi goal against Iraq, was a message to the officials at the Iraq FA that it is failing its fans and its best talents. The barometer of selecting players and forming a strong national side at any level should be the ability of the players and not whether a player grew up in Michigan, Baghdad or Doha. This kind of mentality is holding Iraq back.

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Are The Players Actually Equals?

Leave the talk of Iraqi players playing with ‘gheera‘ and drinking from the Tigris and Euphrates for poetry renditions and songs – neither of those virtues have lifted a World Cup. Talent needs to be given the chance and be nurtured and one telling factor is some Iraqi coaches remark that even if Bassam Alrawi had played for Iraq, he would have never become the same player if not for the coaching he received at the Aspire Academy and the Qatari FA. Another clear sign of how Iraqi players are being developed and how we are no longer producing the Asian stars of tomorrow.


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This feature was written by Hassanin Mubarak, from the magnificent IraqSport Archive. You can contact Hassanin via email or find him on Twitter, where you can find the latest news and statistics on the Iraqi national team. We thank Hassanin for his contribution to IraqFootball.me and look forward to working closely with him in future projects. 

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