Iraqi football has for many years been able to draw on an impressive well of talent. The Lions of Mesopotamia first turned heads on the global stage when they qualified for their maiden FIFA World Cup™ in 1986, and more recent sides have looked to continue the tradition, most notably reaching the semi-finals at the 2004 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Iraq will contest their fourth FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey later this summer.
Despite that pedigree, the country's U-17s have had to endure a long wait to make their breakthrough, only sealing their first qualification for the FIFA U-17 World Cup last year. They are now gearing up to make their debut in the final tournament, which will be held in the United Arab Emirates between 17 October and 8 November.
The man who deserves most of the plaudits for that success is coach Muwafaq Zaidan, who steered the side to the finals by leading them to the last four at the 2012 AFC U-16 Championship. Speaking to FIFA.com, he looked back on their performance in the continental showcase and outlined his hopes for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Iraq's road to the United Arab Emirates was a long and testing one, and it got under way when they began qualifying on 12 September 2011 on home soil in Duhok. Zaidan's charges impressed during the preliminaries and promptly finished top of their group with ten points, thus booking their ticket to the eighth edition of the AFC U-16 Championship in Iran.
Australia, Oman and Thailand lay in wait at the final tournament, and Zaidan has vivid memories of a tough section. "It was a difficult group when you take into account the other teams," he said. "They all played in a different style: the Oman coach was Dutch, Australia play a British style of football and Thailand rely on pace.
"We went into the competition with the goal of qualifying for the U-17 World Cup. I learned lessons from the 2010 AFC U-16 Championship, and that allowed us to get good results two years later."
Iraq's efforts certainly paid off, with Zaidan's troops topping the pool after beating both Oman and Thailand and securing a draw with Australia. That left them needing to overcome neighbours Kuwait to clinch a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
"That was the toughest match of the whole tournament," explained Zaidan. "There was huge pressure on the players' shoulders given what was at stake. The game was an early kick-off and we had trouble playing our usual game. Luckily, the pressure eased off in the second half, and that was when we were able to score the three goals that got us the win.
"We prepared the team psychologically so that the players would stay focused for the whole match," he added. "They had played together a lot, both in the qualifiers and at the Arab Cup, when we reached the final."
Unsurprisingly, the 49-year-old is still filled with joy when he reflects on his team's historic qualification for the final phase. "I was very happy because it was the first time Iraq had qualified in this age group after several unsuccessful attempts," he said. "Our achievement proves that we have talent."
A chance to shine
Since guaranteeing their finals spot last October, Zaidan and his coaching staff have organised a number of training get-togethers for the squad. With the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup a full year away after they sealed their passage, it has been important to keep the players on their toes. Their preparations have also included a string of friendlies, with notable games against the UAE, Iran and Uzbekistan, the reigning Asian champions at this level.
"We started our preparations very early and we've called up new players to integrate them into the squad. It's important that the squad players are at the same level as the starters, because that's what let us down at the AFC U-16 Championship. We've already played several friendlies and, over the next few months, we'll organise more training camps and other international matches to prepare ourselves as best we can."
The Iraq coach also feels reassured that his side will not be the only newcomers at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Indeed, he has identified a whole host of reasons why his players can cause a surprise. "I watched several U-17 qualifiers in South America, Africa and Europe and I think we can match all of those teams," he explained.
"There are a lot of factors in our favour, like the fact that we'll have numerous Iraqi fans in the UAE and that the weather conditions will be similar to what we're used to."
However Zaidan and his charges fare, of course, what cannot be disputed is that the future looks bright for Iraqi football. With the U-17s set to meet the world's finest for the first time and the U-20s getting ready for Turkey 2013, the mood of optimism is unmistakeable.