With most Asian countries making little progress or evening losing ground on May's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Iraq stole the show by climbing two spots to 89th. This may be nothing on their 31-place rise - their best-ever move - in December 1996, but still it provides the west Asians with a timely boost heading into continental qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ next month.
Their results in a couple of international friendlies in late March, notably a 2-0 home victory over South Africa 2010 qualifiers Korea DPR, proved the driving force behind their climb. They have, nevertheless, been on the progress path since Wolfgang Sidka was handed the reins in August 2010.
Iraq began this year by reaching the quarter-finals of the AFC Asian Cup and though they failed to defend the continental title, they were rewarded with a ten-place move to 88th on the global ladder for beating United Arab Emirates and the North Koreans for a place in the knockout phase. With few matches played they slipped three places over the next two months, but soon made up for that lost ground.
Iraq sent shockwaves through Asian football by winning the AFC Asian Cup four years ago. However, despite the milestone achievement, they failed to even make the continent's final ten in the race for tickets to South Africa 2010 and last September slipped to 107th, their lowest position since the introduction of the new Ranking system in July 2006.
With the nation desperate to rebuild their lost credibility, Sidka, who impressed during two spells as Bahrain coach, made a place at Brazil 2014 their principal target. And under the 57-year-old, Iraq duly made steady progress in the build-up to the AFC Asian Cup 2011, racking up eight wins and three draws in a total of fifteen warm-ups. Despite losing out to Australia by a solitary goal in the last-eight meeting in the consequent continental finals, they put in their best display during the tournament against Holger Osieck’s star-studded side, with only Harry Kewell’s extra-time header making the difference between the opponents.
Topping Sidka’s agenda, of course, is Iraq’s two-legged meeting with Yemen on 23 and 28 July in Asia’s second round of qualifying for Brazil 2014. A friendly against Syria on 29 June will come as the prelude to his final preparations, which include a ten-day overseas camp in Turkey in early July, before a friendly tournament in Jordan midway through the month. Taking into account the team’s evident improvement, it is no surprise that the former Werder Bremen coach is confident they can make it through.
“The time of the game against Yemen is not ideal, as we need to prepare our team well and there is not enough time,” he said. “But we can defeat Yemen as they are not that kind of team who are unbeatable.”
Also sounding optimistic is defender Abbas Bassim, who revealed the German's secret in moulding the talented players into a competitive side. The 28-year-old said: “Under coach Sidka there is a lot of competition within the team, and all the players are showing great enthusiasm and sparing nothing to vie for their place. I don’t have a single doubt that our chances [against Yemen] are great.”