Iraqi football has enjoyed a resurgence in 2013, a year that started with the senior national side reaching the final of the Gulf Cup in Bahrain in January, and continued with the country’s youngsters finishing fourth at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, their best result in four appearances in the competition.
Those two performances bore the hallmark of one man: Iraq’s national team coach Hakim Shaker, who was the senior’s side caretaker boss at the Gulf Cup and took charge of the U-20s in Turkey. Just for good measure, the 50-year-old also led the nation’s Olympic team to next year’s AFC U-22 Asian Cup in Oman.
Shaker went into coaching at the age of 28, a move prompted by the injury that brought his playing career to a premature end. After a five-year stint in charge of El Jaish at the start of the 1990s, he spent several years coaching clubs in Qatar and then moved on to national- team duties. In 2011 he guided Iraq’s U-19s to the final of the Asian Cup, where they lost out to Korea Republic, a blow softened by their qualification for this year’s U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
Speaking after that final, Shaker said: “We are proud of the way we have performed. We are all the happier because this achievement was so unexpected, namely because Iraqi football has had very few resources to draw on in recent years.”
Countries with very strong youth teams have a solid base on which to build, and the work carried out in the different age groups is essential.
On 11 September, Shaker was named national team coach on a full-time basis, replacing the Serbian Vladimir Petrovic. Appointed in February, Petrovic had overseen just one win in seven games as Iraq finished bottom of Group B in the fourth round of the AFC qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, Shaker revealed the secret of his success with Iraq’s national sides: “I’ve put a lot of emphasis on self-confidence and being professional, and on the strategies we’ve used in the competitions we’ve played in. More than anything, though, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a talented generation, whom I believe will bring Iraqi football glory in the future.”
Shaker, who caught the eye at the U-20 world finals by celebrating his players’ goals in exuberant style, took the opportunity to defend the work being done by Arab coaches: “Despite their abilities, local coaches don’t tend to inspire a lot of confidence in Arab countries,” he said. “If I can make a go of things and get good results, then hopefully that will change attitudes and lead to homegrown coaches being held in just as high regard as foreign ones.”
Hopes for the future
The Iraqis were the revelations of Turkey 2013. After topping Group E courtesy of defeats of Egypt and Chile and a valuable draw with England, they knocked out Paraguay in the Round of 16 and Korea Republic the last eight before Uruguay halted their run in a semi-final penalty shootout.
As the coach explained, that showing did Iraqi football a power of good: “Coming fourth will allow the group to grow in confidence and progress. The U-20 team’s star players are also in the national side and their performance in Turkey shows we are on the right track.”
Shaker, who has coached every Iraq national team from U-17 level upwards, added: “Countries with very strong youth teams have a solid base on which to build, and the work carried out in the different age groups is essential. Thanks to that Iraq has some quality players to call on.”
The next challenge for his seniors comes this Friday when they travel to Saudi Arabia for their latest qualifying match for the 2015 Asian Cup. Iraq have won just three of their games so far, and Shaker knows he will be expected to make this crucial encounter a turning point in his side’s campaign.
“The strong showings of the youth teams can only help the senior side step up their performance levels,” he added. “The Saudi Arabia match won’t be easy, but you can’t rule anything out in football. I wish our Saudi brothers every luck and I hope to see both teams make the final phase of the Asian Cup.”