Iraq’s Under-23 football team left the 2016 Rio Olympics with their heads held high. That departure, though, was tempered by thoughts of what could, or even should, have been.
Three draws from three games was not enough to take the Lions of Mesopotamia to the last eight but there is much more to the tale than that.
The goalless draw in the opening game against Denmark was seen as satisfactory at the time, though looking back it was an opportunity missed. Iraq had more verve, energy and skill than the Scandinavians but sometimes European teams are given a little too much respect.
Hosts Brazil were given the right amount, however, and that 0-0 tie was one worth celebrating. Neymar and Co, roared on by an expectant crowd, were desperate to win and expected to do so. That they did not is testament to the organisational, technical and disciplinary qualities of Iraq. It was a mature performance in tough circumstances.
And it set up the final game with South Africa. Win that and then coach Abdul Ghani Shahad would have been preparing for the last eight.
It was an unforgettable if frustrating 90 minutes. South Africa scored after six minutes but that merely served to signal the start of an Iraqi onslaught. There were 29 attempts on goal, one went in (the only one of the tournament for Iraq), three hit the woodwork and the rest were either wasted or saved. In the end, it was 1-1 and not enough.
At the end of the match, the disappointment was there for all to see. Iraq gave it their best shot and failed – the fact that the team did not lose was scant consolation.
There is no time to feel sorry for themselves, however, as the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup kicks off on September 1.
It couldn’t be a much tougher start, a long trip to the home of Asian champions Australia followed by a quick return to the Middle East and a game against Saudi Arabia. Japan, Thailand and United Arab Emirates complete the group from which the top two qualify automatically for the World Cup in Russia.
Ali Adnan may or may not be there. The Udinese left-back spent most of his time on the left-wing in Brazil and had a good tournament. The early-career tag of ‘Asia’s Gareth Bale’ has not done him any favours but when he is fit and on form, Adnan is a top-class player and a sight to behold going forward.
With the talented Dhurgham Ismail behind him, Adnan had license to attack against South Africa and impressed. The problem was that he was taken off by coach Abdul Ghani Shahad in the second half, along with the equally impressive midfielder Ali Husni.
A double substitution of such a talented pair players will always be a gamble for a coach. If you go on to win, you get all the credit, if you don’t then you won’t. And in this instance, Iraq’s attacking dominance essentially ended when the duo exited. Adnan was so frustrated that he immediately announced his retirement from the national team after the game.
However, new senior coach Radhi Shenaishil has included Adnan in his preliminary squad for the World Cup qualifiers so it remains to be seen how the Italian-based star deals with the summons.
If he answers Shenaishil’s call, he will link up on the left with Dhurgham again. But the right-back slot may well belong to Alaa Mhawi. The 20 year-old does not have a great deal of experience –or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he did not –but in the 0-0 draw with Brazil, he handled one of the best players in the world in Neymar, with aplomb. A long international career may well lie ahead.
Whisper it quietly but Younis Mahmoud was also missed in Brazil. The veteran striker, long held to have had too much influence on and off the pitch with the national team, has also retired (again).
Had the Desert Fox been taken to Brazil as one of three overage players then Iraq’s attacking play may not have been quite so fluid, but surely the 2007 Asian Cup hero would not have been as wasteful. Younis said recently that despite his retirement, his international career was not over. But at the moment, it looks to be exactly that.
Sherko Karim, heralded as the next star of Iraqi football, didn’t do his reputation any favours. The young forward plays for Grasshoppers in Switzerland and there were high hopes that the Olympics would be his breakout tournament. It didn’t work out that way and the 20 year-old will have to wait for his senior debut.
Yaser Karim returns in midfield and his ability to control the tempo of the game with his astute passing was missed in Brazil. Against Australia, with the visitors sure to come under pressure, his control will be needed more than ever as Iraq look to keep possession and hit the hosts on the counter-attack as much as possible.
With Iraq, you never quite know what you are going to get. The Olympics should have been better but as preparation for the final round of 2018 World Cup qualification, they were pretty good. Australia and Saudi Arabia should be wary.