After three defeats, 12 goals conceded and just two scored, Iraq’s FIFA U-17 World Cup adventure is at an end as early as the group stage. The tournament debutants were drawn in a difficult group alongside Sweden, Mexico and Nigeria, though they were certainly not there just to make up the numbers. On the contrary, they produced more than a few flashes of class, their only failing being a lack of cutting edge in the final third.
Indeed, coach Muwafaq Adlool took a positive view of his squad’s campaign: “We put in three very good performances, even against Nigeria, when we lost 5-0. If you concede twice early on in a game, it’s hard to come back, and you saw how disappointed the younger, inexperienced players were. However, we’ll still take a lot from this campaign. It was a good lesson for the players, the coaching team and Iraqi football as a whole.
“It wasn’t an easy group,” he continued. “We played two teams who had won this competition five times between them. Still, those are the games that make you better. You want to play against those types of players and see how they play. You learn how much pressure there is at this level, what you need to focus on and how you should prepare yourself. You play against teams from all over the world, and that’s something that helps a player grow.”
Manu Garba, Adlool’s Nigerian opposite number, was also impressed with Iraq’s plucky and courageous display, despite the Africans’ handsome victory. “We were helped by the two early goals, but they’re a very organised unit and they played well. I think they'll have a bigger part to play when the next U-20 World Cup rolls around.”
Similar hopes are harboured by Iraq’s captain Mohammed Salam, who spoke to FIFA.com following the 5-0 defeat to the Golden Eaglets. “My aim is to be part of the squad for the next U-20 World Cup, but before that we have the next qualification tournaments to look forward to.
"Obviously we’re all feeling pretty disappointed right now, but we’re also proud," he went on. "This was our first U-17 World Cup and we gave a good account of ourselves. We might have lost all three games but football’s like that sometimes. “We’re happy and grateful to have been able to play these matches. It’s a good way for us to improve ourselves as players.”
That Iraq were even able to take their place among the world’s best in this age group is a result of the country’s impressive advancements in youth coaching, and is something that should engender pride in all those concerned. Before this year’s event in the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf State had been at the FIFA World Cup™ once, at the U-20 World Cup on four occasions and once at the FIFA Confederations Cup. They can now add appearing at the U-17 World Cup to their list of achievements.
This particular crop of talent were not able to build on the performance of their seniors, who sensationally reached the semi-finals of the U-20 World Cup in Turkey back in the summer. Nevertheless, their performance in the UAE has given cause for optimism in the future. “It was all so new and exciting. I’m delighted that I was able to score a goal against Mexico. It was just great to be a part of this World Cup,” said Sherko Kareem to FIFA.com.
The team’s objective had been to reach the Round of 16, and so elimination at the first hurdle may, in that context, be considered a disappointing result. Still, it should not be forgotten that from Asia, only Uzbekistan managed to equal Iraq’s feat of qualifying for both junior World Cups this year.
In a sense, then, 2013 could already be described as one of the most successful years in the history of Iraqi football. It may prove to be the foundation on which a future can be built, as well as helping foster the hope that, after a long period of hardship and war, the country can flourish once again.