One of the primary tasks of any coach is to set goals and work towards achieving them. For the head coach of a national team, the responsibility for hitting those targets becomes even greater. So it is understandable that some choose to keep their ambitions close to their chest, to minimise negative reactions should all not go to plan.
In an interview with FIFA.com before the AFC U-19 Championship in November 2012, Hakeem Shakir, head coach of the Iraq U-20 national team, broke from the norm and laid his cards firmly on the table. His stated aim? To return Iraq's U-20s to the world stage for the first time in over a decade by leading them to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013.
Iraq hit that target by securing one of four Asian qualifying berths for Turkey 2013, and came agonisingly close to winning the preliminary competition outright. Shakir was later named head coach of Iraq's senior side as a replacement for the outgoing Brazilian tactician Zico. But he opted against taking the job permanently, deciding instead to focus on preparing the U-20s for their future challenges.
In another new, exclusive interview, Shakir revealed to FIFA.com the secrets of his success at the AFC U-19 Championship, and shared his aspirations for his promising young team.
FIFA.com: How do you feel now that you've achieved your goal of qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup?
Hakeem Shakir: I feel very proud. My joy is heightened by the fact that our performance exceeded, by some distance, the level that Iraqi football has been capable of in recent years. As a national team coach, I'm delighted by the fighting spirit shown by the players at the AFC U-19 Championship. It was something I had really tried to impress on them, because team spirit is always a decisive factor.
Did you set any other objectives during the AFC U-19 Championship?
During our preparation programme, we set ourselves several goals. We've trained a talented young generation of players that will serve Iraqi football for years to come. We asked the players to be consistent, which is difficult at their age. And we wanted, above all, to restore Iraq's reputation in this age category after a long time without success in the AFC U-19 Championship, and a long absence from the World Cup.
The final allowed us to prepare the ground for the next generation, who will not have to face the continent's heavyweights in the qualifiers [for the next AFC U-19 Championship]. Despite the defeat, I'd like to thank all the players and technical staff for their continued efforts over the past two years. I hope they'll be able to replicate their recent performances in the build-up to Turkey 2013.
What can Iraq hope to achieve at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013?
By securing our place at the finals, we have achieved our objective. This is going to increase the amount of pressure on our shoulders, pressure that we've already been carrying for two years. We're the only Arab team to have qualified from the Asian zone, and we're now waiting for our brothers from Africa to join us.
As ambassadors for Arab football at this great competition, we will need to rise to the occasion and present a good image. All eyes will be on this new generation, which has taken Iraq back to the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time in more than a decade since Argentina 2001. We've developed a training programme and we must now follow it. I hope our team will earn everyone's admiration for its technical ability and spirit, while achieving good results along the way.
We have 25 players of a similar level. There are no first-choice players or substitutes; the players form a solid team and play like one man.
Returning to your AFC U-19 Championship campaign, what can you tell us about your decisive encounter with Japan?
It was a very important match. First, because it gave us the chance to qualify for the World Cup. And second, because it allowed us an opportunity to take revenge for several past defeats against Japan. We had recently lost to them in a Brazil 2014 qualifier and in the AFC U-16 Championship 2012. It was a game that offered a real test of our technical ability. But we kept our composure and turned the situation to our advantage. We won the match [2-1] with a performance that thrilled everyone watching.
Tell us about your semi-final against Australia...
We were on the brink of the final and we fought until the end. We knew the Australians would be in strong physical shape, and that some of their players were based in Europe. We chose a tactical approach to counter the threat of their striker, [Corey] Gameiro. We just had to ride out the storm and then take our chances. The players gave an outstanding performance and executed the plan to the letter.
Korea Republic were the team that denied your side the AFC U-19 Championship title. Could you talk us through that final defeat?
After playing them in our opening match, I said in my press conference that Iraq and Korea Republic would be the two teams to reach the final. I based that assertion on the performances of the two sides, and my prediction turned out to be correct. When you're in a final, you have to score first as everything can hinge on one goal. We scored in the first half and we could have put the game beyond doubt if we'd converted one of our chances in the second period.
We can have one or two regrets, as our defence made a big mistake in injury time that allowed the South Koreans to equalise. When you then have to go through a penalty shoot-out, having come so close to victory, you can lose your focus. I hope the players will learn some lessons from that harsh experience. Namely, that you must not think about the title, or victory, until the final whistle has gone. Mistakes like that are understandable for a team playing in their first major competition.
How has the group progressed since then, and what do you think the future holds for them?
I think we've seen very rapid results. I promoted seven players to the senior squad for the West Asian Football Federation Championship and the Gulf Cup. The management team needs to create the right conditions for preparing this young team. The goal is to train up a senior side capable of challenging for a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
If you ask me about the technical ability of this generation, I'll tell you that we have 25 players of a similar level. There are no first-choice players or substitutes; the players form a solid team and play like one man. Each one of them must serve their country and perform a clearly defined role. This generation now knows how to adapt to circumstances in matches, and to the technical variety of their opponents.
We've taught them discipline and to have fighting spirit. We've also developed their natural attributes. We now have an exceptional team at our disposal, one that we hope will continue to speak for itself both at Turkey 2013 and beyond.