Baghdad and Trabzon are more than 1,000 km apart as the crow flies, but football has brought the Turkish Black Sea metropolis and the Iraqi capital much, much closer in spirit. Passion and enthusiasm are emanating from the host nation of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 all the way to the Persian Gulf. Iraq has suffered much in recent years and times are still hard, but the nation has gratefully received the ray of light provided by their young footballing heroes, who are through to the semi-finals at the tournament for the first time, and have emerged as an authentic surprise package.
The team coached by Hakeem Shakir appear utterly focused and determined, shutting out the attractions of lively Trabzon as they prepare meticulously for Wednesday evening’s showdown with Uruguay at the Huseyin Avni Aker Stadium. The players are refusing to contemplate anything other than football, and they are utterly committed to the cause. One more victory, and they would be through to the final.
“We want to continue our run at this tournament, because we now have only one target, winning the World Cup," declared defender Ali Adnan. “Our recent results and performances have proved Iraqi football is still very good, and that we have reserves of talent in our country," he added. And that isn't all, because in the wake of a dramatic penalty shootout victory over Korea Republic in the last eight, the Turkish public has taken the Iraqis to their hearts, and they have also become overnight stars at home.
After Shakir’s side overcame their long-term Asian rivals from the Far East, people took to the streets in Iraqi cities, dancing and celebrating into the night. For a few hours, it was possible to forget the struggles of daily life. No-one came close to predicting the explosive performances put in by the young Iraqi starlets at the tournament, but it has made their fellow countryman proud and happy.
Farhan Shakor, who has three goals in Turkey so far, made no secret of his delight: “Our game against South Korea was the best thing I've experienced in my career so far. We want to dedicate this victory to the Iraqi people, because we owe them so much. If it wasn't for them, we'd never have come this far. I'm overjoyed, because I was part of a triumph which has made every Iraqi happy."
Shakor is still only 17 and arrived for the finals as a squad player, but he has emerged as a key member of the team. The FC Sulaymaniya striker converted the decisive penalty against Korea Republic and also put away the extra-time winner to seal a 1-0 victory over Paraguay in the last sixteen. Only Hussain Said Muhammad previously scored three for Iraq at a FIFA U-20 World Cup, back at the inaugural edition in Tunisia in 1977. His successor Shakor is by no means the only man so conscious of the significance of the current winning run.
“I'd love to be in Baghdad right now, experiencing the whole thing live," commented coach Shakir after the victory over the South Koreans, as he visualised the frenzied celebrations in the capital. Keeper Mohammed Hameed explained the reasons behind the party atmosphere: “It's like a public festival for us. We've done magnificent things for the image of our country. I'm certain that what we’re experiencing in Turkey at the moment will open all kinds of doors."
Only one Iraqi team has ever made it as far as the semi-finals of a FIFA tournament in the past, when the men's team made the last four at the Olympic Football Tournament in 2004. Furthermore, Shakir’s side are the first Asian team to come within one match of the final at a FIFA U-20 World Cup since Japan in 1999.
Of course, the achievement already being what it is, it might be tempting to lose focus on the forthcoming clash with La Celeste. Not so this Iraq squad. Their euphoria quickly gave way to focus and complete attention on the task against Uruguay. “They're one of the best teams in South America, maybe even the best. It'll be tough, but I'm utterly convinced we'll make the final," declared coach Shakir. “We're not scared," added defender Adnan, “we scored three goals against South Korea, and we have enough potential to allow ourselves a dream of the final." He put into words what millions of his fellow countrymen are now thinking, people who are more than 1,000 km away, and yet somehow so close.