Iraqi striker Younis Mahmoud career has enjoyed his fair share of success – not least leading his country to glory at the AFC Asian Cup in 2007 – but he still dreams of the FIFA World Cup™ appearance that would provide a fitting finale to his long list of achievements. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Iraq captain chats about his path to success, the continental title of 2007 and his hopes for the national team.
For most players the road to top-flight football is a lengthy one, involving years moving through the ranks of club and international football. For Younis Mahmoud, however, it was a much shorter route, as he explains: “It’s true I made rapid progress from the outset. After I’d played for some small sides like Al Dibs and provincial team Kirkuk, I was approached by officials from Al Talaba, and the idea of a move to such a prestigious outfit appealed to my ambitious side. I won three titles in my first season there and I was ready for more, but my call-up to the national side took me by surprise. It was a dream come true and something I’d not even dared to imagine. I was the youngest player to represent Iraq and things got off to a great start when we won the second edition of the WAFF Championship.”
Young and famous
The Kirkuk-born front man may have been searching for stardom, but it would be more accurate to say that it found him, his eye-catching on-field exploits and goalscoring earning him a spot in the national team at the tender age of 19.
“My aim is to give everything I have to my country’s football team. When I run out onto the pitch, my only thought is to score and help my side win. I was named top scorer in the Abha Cup in Saudi Arabia, was a nominee for AFC Young Player of the Year and was top scorer in the qualifiers for the Asian Cup. Iraq fielded a young side in that tournament under coach Adnan Hamad and we were looking to show the world how far we’d come. We qualified from a difficult group but went out to China in a very tough quarter-final.”
It was at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens that Mahmoud showed everyone what he was capable of, and a new look Iraq side won plaudits for their dazzling run to the semi-finals.
“It was an excellent competition as far as we were concerned,” said the 28-year-old. “The Arab sides usually go out in the early rounds but we were a fantastic team, whose natural talents were enhanced by a never-say-die attitude, and that’s why we did so well. We topped our first-round group then we got past Australia in the quarter-finals to go through to the final four. We so wanted to get on the podium but it wasn’t to be and we were beaten first by Paraguay then Italy to come fourth.”
The professional game
Naturally enough there were a host of clubs clamouring for the services of the young forward, but, though Younis was eager for a taste of the professional game, he had no great expectations of success.
“I received a number of offers and I had to turn pro to get the experience I needed, so I went to Qatar side Al Khor where I lived up to expectations. We surprised everyone by winning the Qatar Cup and I was named best player at it, having finished leading scorer. The following year I almost did it again, finishing a goal behind the top scorer. After that I went to Al Gharafa, where I became the first Iraqi to top-score in a foreign league competition. As the team improved we added a Qatar Stars Cup and Emir of Qatar Cup to the trophy cabinet and I was always there or thereabouts at the top of the goalscorers’ rankings. I had a wonderful time at Al Gharafa but it’s time for a change now. I’ve signed to play for Al Wakra and I’m looking forward to helping them in their quest for honours.”
A year to remember
For Younis and the Iraq national team, 2007 was the year they achieved their finest achievement to date, winning the Asian Cup in convincing style against all the odds.
“The competition was just full of historic moments,” Mahmoud reminisced. “When we set off for the tournament no one thought we would achieve much, and there were a lot of pessimists saying we were bound to go out in the first round or the quarter-finals. We were in high spirits, and between ourselves we’d talk about the possibility of doing something really big in Asia. As captain and star striker I was under twice as much pressure as usual, but we took the tournament one step at a time and ignored what people around us were saying.
"We came first in our group, ahead of Australia, Thailand and Oman, and a win over Vietnam in the quarter-finals set up an encounter with Korea Republic. We fancied our chances, and defeated them on penalties and then it was the final. Something about facing Saudi Arabia just made us relax. It was labelled a Gulf derby and I think we felt we knew them. Anyway, we played brilliant football and took the title!”
So how did it feel to hit the back of the net in an Asian Cup final, and what were his feelings on lifting the trophy as captain of the victorious side?
“The game went through different stages,” he explained, “and we got through all them by playing the right kind of football. However, as the clock ticked down we knew we had to find a goal from somewhere. Hawar Mohamed was going to take a corner and I knew just what he’d do because we’d worked it out beforehand. He crossed the ball just out of reach of the goalkeeper and defenders into the perfect position, and I made my move and headed it home.”
Smiling with the memory, he then described the immediate aftermath: “I was overcome with joy; I sprinted all over the pitch waving the captain’s armband. When the final whistle went I was just so pleased to have brought my country some of the happiness it deserves. When I received the trophy I was filled with this sense of power and I gave a massive scream. It was an incredible tournament - the trophy, the Golden Boot and best player award. What more can a man achieve?’
Iraq has struggled of late to reproduce the championship form it showed back in 2007, but the side are still in the running at the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. So how does Mahmoud see his team’s chances?
“We weren’t so fortunate in the last Asian Cup and the quarter-final defeat by Australia was pretty disappointing, as we wasted a number of good chances. Our technical skills are in decline and we need a shake-up, but I think that the Iraq side will get back on the right path soon enough. It’s just a question of a little time and application. We’ve just gone past Yemen in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers and we’re hoping to make it to the final round.
"Asian football has come on leaps and bounds, but the gaps in quality between the sides aren’t that great and you can easily bridge them through hard work, training and bonding as a team. This is my generation’s last chance to make it to a World Cup and lot of the players think about nothing else. We just hope we can make it through the qualifiers and book a place on the biggest stage of all. It’s the ultimate honour for anyone who plays for their country.”