Graduating from the U-20s to the senior team is the aim that unites everyone at Turkey 2013. Well, almost everyone. Iraq coach Hakeem Shakir is not only an exception to this particular rule; he purposely made the opposite journey. In February, he resigned his post as national coach to take charge of the country’s best youngsters. In essence, he demanded a demotion.
Bizarre though this decision may have seemed at the time, Shakir’s reasons are now becoming clear. Iraq have emerged as, arguably, the big story of this FIFA U-20 World Cup, and go into their final Group E match leading section rivals Chile, England and Egypt. Yet while everyone else is labelling them as the tournament’s surprise packages, their coach insists that the only thing surprising him is that they are not doing better.
“People might be shocked by Iraq at this tournament, but I’m not at all,” he told FIFA.com. “In fact, I expect even more from my team in the games ahead. If people have been surprised so far, they should expect even bigger surprises in the future. I left my job as national coach for that reason - because I was so convinced that this team was special and could do a lot of good in this competition. Whenever I had brought these young players up to play with the senior team, they were the ones who stood out. People might have thought it was strange when I changed jobs, but I think everyone can see now that I was right to take the gamble.”
Shakir has no hesitation in declaring these U-20 players as “the future of Iraqi football”, and it seems they also form its present. After all, just days before jetting out to Turkey, five of his Turkey 2013 squad were in the starting XI that pushed Australia all the way in a dramatic and evenly matched FIFA World Cup qualifier. It was a world away from the gentle friendlies being contested by their group rivals, but Shakir had backed his players’ involvement, saying it would “build their confidence and prepare them psychologically”.
Again, his gambler’s instinct was rewarded. Iraq have found themselves in losing positions in each of their matches thus far – 2-0 down to England, 1-0 behind against Egypt – and on both occasions have shown the self-confidence and psychological toughness required to battle back. Yet Shakir’s hope is that, for the sake of his nerves alone, his team shed their status as Turkey 2013’s comeback kings.
“I am happy with our comebacks but, believe me, I wish they weren’t needed,” he said. “I would be a lot happier if it was us who took the lead for once. But I must say that it is a mark of any great team that it fights back when things are tough. We have already faced the champions of Africa and one of the best teams in Europe, and the players never accepted defeat. That is something I am very proud of. You can make mistakes in any game but the most important thing is to correct those mistakes, and that is what our players have done.”
As striking as Iraq’s comebacks at Turkey 2013 have been the reactions of Shakir’s players. The images of substitutes leaping from the bench and mobbing those on the field, of the coach being carried shoulder-high by a reserve goalkeeper, certainly say more about the squad’s unity than any words could.
“We built this team to be like a family,” said Shakir. “When that family succeeds, everyone within it is happy. Underneath it all, there are rules and discipline like in all good families. But we like to enjoy ourselves and we are spontaneous people. That is why our joy is so obvious out on the pitch; it all comes naturally.”
Iraq’s togetherness has also extended from the pitch to the stands, where a band of flag-waving fans have provided noisy and incessant backing for their team, even at times when defeat seemed inevitable. Such support has not gone unnoticed, or unappreciated, by Shakir, who wants to reward these hardy enthusiasts with an extended stay in the pretty coastal town of Antalya.
“The fans have been fantastic and I think there will be even more of them here for the Chile match,” he said. “From the first minute here in Turkey, thanks to their support, we have felt like a home team because we are among so many friends. Hopefully we can now give them some more goals to cheer and beat Chile to make sure we finish top of the group. I am confident we can. Finishing first has always been our target, and it’s especially important now because we would like to stay in Antalya. Stability, both psychologically and mentally, is vital to the players, and staying here would be a big boost to our chances of doing well in this tournament. Not many people will expect us to go far, I know, but I believe it’s possible.”
Given Shakir’s recent record, who would dare bet against him?