Ever since he made his debut for the national team as a 17-year-old in 2001, Nashat Akram has been an undisputed star for the Lions of Mesopotamia. Rated by many back home as one of the greatest Iraqi players of all time, Akram was in sparkling form at the AFC Asian Cup 2007, where he helped his side win the continental championship for the first time.
When the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011 kicks off in Doha in January, the eyes of the world will again be on the playmaker to see how he fares when Iraq defend their title. Akram spoke to FIFA.com about the atmosphere in the Iraqi camp leading up to the tournament, his own aspirations and the expectations of his team in Doha.
FIFA.com: Let’s start with the Gulf Cup. How would you rate the performance of the Iraqi team?
Nashat Akram: It was good. We achieved many of our aims. We reached the semi-final and the team are now gelling together. That was important for our build-up to the Asian Cup. Unfortunately we couldn’t achieve our ultimate goal, which was to reach the final and claim a trophy we haven’t won for a long time.
Will your early departure from the Gulf Cup damage the atmosphere in the camp ahead of the Asian Cup?
Not at all. We’re a professional team. Our aim was to give pleasure to our people as we’ve done in the past. We came close but squandered the chance to beat Kuwait, allowing them to go through on penalties. Everything we’ve been through will make us stronger as a team, and we now want to turn the page and write a new chapter for the Asian Cup. Providing we respond positively, we’re sure to improve, and that will ensure we win games.
How would you rate the standard of teams at this year’s Asian Cup?
I believe the Asian Cup will be tougher this time around. Other sides are stronger now, because they’ve competed in other competitions since the last edition. Take Japan and South Korea. They both fared well at the 2010 World Cup, where they qualified for the second round. Australia are also more of a threat than they once were, and they know how much this tournament means. Then we have the Gulf States aspiring to be the best, so everyone wants to win the trophy. I think it’s impossible to pick the teams that will qualify from the opening stage.
We know there’s going to be a lot of pressure on us in the coming days when, as reigning champions, people will start naming us as one of the favourites.
What about your group?
When the draw was made, everyone said this was the hardest group, and they’re right. Korea DPR have improved massively since the last tournament and showed what they can do in the World Cup. UAE have an excellent squad with young players who took part in the U-20 World Cup in Egypt. Iran will always be contenders for the title and will be tough opponents. I think the group is incredibly strong and we won’t know who will go through until after the final round of matches.
How do you rate Iraq’s chances?
We’ve got a good chance. We’re the holders and most of the players who won it in 2007 are here in Doha. I think we’re working well as a team and have the experience to go far. We’ve got a top class coach in Wolfgang Sidka and we’ll improve over the next few weeks as we have a number of matches lined up to help us prepare.
Do you feel the pressure as Asian champions?
We know there’s going to be a lot of pressure on us in the coming days when, as reigning champions, people will start naming us as one of the favourites. But we’ve got experience with this, we know that favourites and history don’t equate to victory. Our performance on the field is all that matters, so when the competition starts we’ll forget everything and recapture the fighting spirit that sets us apart. We won’t be beaten easily; we intend to fight to keep the cup, and if we can’t win, then we must leave happy in the knowledge that we played like champions.
What are you personally hoping to achieve at the tournament?
I want to play well throughout. I’m looking forward to serving my country as are the rest of the players. Everyone wants to win the best player award but, even though I’ll do everything I can to lift the cup, individual awards aren’t as important for me. As for my future after the tournament, we’ll see what happens.
What do you want from the Iraqi fans?
I’ll never ask anything of them, there’s no need. Our fans are great. At every tournament they get behind us. They’re the real driving force behind the team. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have the most fans there. When we take to the field, it gives us a huge boost to see the terraces filled with our supporters cheering us on.