The FIFA U-20 World Cup has long been the stage on which new generations of players have showcased their skills to the world. But for every superstar it produces, there is a far greater number of talented and dedicated professionals who go on to perform a lifetime’s service for their national teams - the often unsung heroes who help push their countries up the rankings and compete for silverware.
Iraq is one country which has reaped rewards from playing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. First featuring in the tournament’s finals way back in 1977, the country’s third and most recent appearance in 2001 involved a group of players who would go on to win the AFC Asian Cup in 2007.
Now, with Turkey 2013 just around the corner, a fourth generation of promising young Iraqis are preparing to take to the stage. Foremost among them is striker Mohanad Karrar, voted Player of the Tournament at the AFC U-19 Championship. Hotly tipped to take his place in the country’s senior squad, Karrar sat down with FIFA.com to talk about the upcoming tournament and his dreams for the future.
The 19-year-old is a member of only the fourth Iraqi team to qualify for a FIFA U-20 World Cup, an achievement certainly not lost on him. “Everyone knows what a big deal this is. Taking part in a World Cup is a dream that motivates all the players. When we got together as a side before the Asian qualifiers, everyone was talking about making it to the World Cup.”
“It was tough at first,” he admitted. “We kept at it and, as our standards improved, the dream started to look attainable. Now we can't wait to take to the field in Turkey and represent Iraqi football.”
With qualification secured, Karrar and his team-mates began focusing on the next task. “No one expected us to qualify,” he laughed. “Well, perhaps they gave us a very slim chance. But after our performance at the AFC U-19 Championship in the UAE, where we got pretty close to taking home the trophy, people realise that seizing slim chances is something we're capable of. Our next goal is to make it out of the group stages in Turkey.”
The desire and ambition that drives young Karrar and his team-mates rest on solid foundations, with the squad’s impressive showing in recent times giving them the self-belief they need.
“If you don’t have that drive and those ambitious targets then maybe you’ll never succeed,” Karrar said. “Why shouldn’t we raise our expectations? It was a long and hard road to qualification and we showed we could overcome obstacles at every stage along the way.”
It was in UAE that this ability was really put to the test: “The AFC Championship was an important milestone that presented us with a number of challenges. We got by with strong performances, drive and determination, as well tactical discipline and a desire to make the Iraqi people happy. That’s what sets us apart. Now, we’ve got the chance to go even further in Turkey. We must raise our game, work together on the pitch and try not to waste our chances. I reckon we’ve a good chance of progressing, and we’ll try to make it happen.”
But he also sounds a note of caution: “The World Cup is nothing like the AFC Championship. We will be facing teams that play different styles of football (Egypt, England and Chile), and they'll all have the same objective in mind. We have to be ready to give 100 per cent because reaching the second round requires a team effort.”
“We must follow our coach’s plan for each match,” he continued. “We have time to prepare, so if we follow the same recipe for success that we used in the UAE, then I’m confident we can achieve what we came here for.”
The young goalscorer was one of Iraq’s standout players at the AFC U-19 Championship, but with the plaudits comes pressure and for the first time Karrar will have the world watching to see if he can produce.
“Look,” he said after a moment’s thought: “I was leading goalscorer in the team, the second highest goalscorer at the tournament, player of the tournament and then I was named AFC Young Player of the Year. But I didn’t get any of them through my efforts alone. On the contrary I consider these awards to belong to the whole team. Everyone’s contributed to where we are now and, were it not for my team-mates’ help on and off the pitch, I wouldn’t have won a thing. I was hoping the whole team would be nominated.”
“Of course there are expectations,” he continued. “As players our job is to do what the coach tells us and, since I’m a key figure in the team’s attack, I have to score the goals. If I can’t score, I must try and set my team-mates up so they can do it.”
His philosophy is simple: “Goals are what this game’s about. It’s how you compete, how you beat the other side, and it’s everybody’s job at the end of the day. That’s why I don’t feel pressure when I don’t score, because it’s the team’s performance that matters. It’s about success at tournament level. So, I won’t be celebrating if we don’t manage to achieve our collective goals but I do well on a personal level. Definitely not. Iraq’s success is what I care about.”
The FIFA U-20 World Cup has been a launch pad for many professional careers. The U-20 Iraq side of 2001, for instance, produced the likes of Nashat Akram, Noor Sabri and Hawar Mulla Mohammed, part of the legendary side that took the continental title at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.
Karrar is well aware that professional club football is the fastest route to developing as a player, and he is determined to make the leap. First and foremost, though, he is thinking about his country.
“I got a number of offers after the 2012 Asian Championship,” he explained, “but I was worried it might affect my performances and distance me from the team, so I put them on hold till after the World Cup. On the domestic front, I moved from Al Karakh to Duhok, a team that can challenge for the league title and the AFC Champions League. I know turning pro is important and I want to play in the top tournaments. Iraqi football has come on leaps and bounds thanks to so many players going abroad and bringing their skills back to the national side. That’s the route I want to take.”