They came up just short of pulling off a truly remarkable coup, but Iraq are still responsible for one of the most astonishing stories in global football this year. Coach Hakeem Shakir’s side went into the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 as rank outsiders, but have emerged as the surprise package after a sensational run to the last four. There was drama all the way too, culminating in an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat to Uruguay in the semi-finals, but the Iraqis have still won plaudits from all over the world and provided a welcome ray of hope to their ecstatic fellow countrymen. The mood now is naturally one of disappointment, but Shakir’s team are determined to round off their adventure with a happy ending.
“Obviously I'm sad we've not made the final, but I'm also very proud," Shakir told FIFA.com in the wake of defeat to La Celeste in Trabzon on Wednesday night. The players were visibly downcast and some appeared close to tears, but they would soon hold their heads high again. At the end of the day, they knew their achievement in Turkey this summer would go down in the history books, as no Iraqi team had ever made the last four at the tournament. In fact, it was only the second time Iraq have reached the semi-finals at a FIFA event, following a similar run at the 2004 Men's Olympic Football Tournament. Moreover, the current side remain undefeated in normal and extra time this summer.
With the exception of Shakir himself, no-one believed a podium finish might be possible for the team built on the foundations of in-form left back Ali Adnan and extrovert and occasionally unconventional but highly capable keeper Mohammed Hameed, while boosted by 17-year-old shooting star Farhan Shakor, scorer of three goals so far. Only the coach appeared convinced from the start that his side had what it takes to go all the way. “This is a very special generation. We came here to prove that, and to show how much we love football. And our sights were set higher with every passing game," commented the 50-year-old.
The Iraqis’ direct, uncompromising and high-speed football has won many admirers. A skilled and efficient team, they have at no time allowed their opponents to dominate play for anything more than brief spells. They are now looking to sign off with this newly-won reputation intact by claiming third place in Istanbul on Saturday at the expense of 2009 winners Ghana. And one motivating factor, present throughout the tournament so far, will again drive the Iraqis to new heights: “My gut is telling me my players have done great things for the folks back home. We've sent out a very positive signal. But we want to round it off by coming third, sending another important message to our people," confirmed Shakir.
But why is this particular generation proving so successful? The coach offered his thoughts on that when he spoke to FIFA.com some two weeks ago: “We built this team to be like a family. When that family succeeds, everyone in it is happy. Underneath it all, there are rules and discipline like in all good families. But we like to enjoy ourselves and we’re spontaneous people. That’s why our joy is so obvious out on the pitch. It all comes naturally."
That much was strikingly clear in the nerve-tingling moments prior to the shoot-out against Uruguay, when Shakir gathered his players into a huddle for what looked like a conventional keep-calm-and-do-your-best talk. Instead, he had them dance and sing their hearts out, an extraordinary and unusual sight at such a nail-bitingly tense time.
The proud coach believes his young charges can usher in a golden era in Iraqi football: “This generation is gearing up for the [FIFA] World Cup in 2018, because we want to give back even more to the people at home." The ambitious plan will seem even more plausible if the fairytale journey ends on Saturday with the bronze medal.