With Iraq's fairytale AFC Asian Cup 2007 conquest still fresh in the minds of football fans the world over, it is no surprise that they have set their sights high in aiming for a first FIFA World Cup™ finals since 1986.
Led by Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, the Iraqis swept aside the likes of Australia and Korea Republic en route to the final, where a solitary Younis Mahmoud goal was enough for Iraq to defeat Saudi Arabia and get their hands on the trophy for the first time.
The team's rebuilding process can be traced back to the previous edition of the Asian Cup three years ago, when Iraq fielded an Under-23 side that stormed into the quarter-finals. Then, at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004, the same side reached the last four.
Although they then failed to progress to the Asian Zone's qualifying final round for Germany 2006 that year, the international experiences they gained through this campaign proved precious, with a host of youth talents from the former side having come of age to form the backbone of the current team.
Three years on, the Gulf side showed that they have developed to a level where they are more than able to compete against Asia's best. With little time to prepare themselves under a new coach, Iraq made a slow start, drawing 1-1 with co-hosts Thailand in the tournament curtain-raiser. But in their second outing they pulled off an upset, beating hotly-tipped Australia 3-1 with Nashat Akram and Hawar Mohammed on target, before Karrar Jassim sealed a memorable victory.
A goalless draw against Oman set up a quarter-final meeting against Vietnam, where Vieira's charges ran out 2-0 winners. With a place in the final at stake, the unfancied Iraqis battled bravely to hold two-time Asian champions Korea Republic to a goalless draw over 120 minutes and force a penalty shoot-out, which the Gulf side won.
The winning team boasts blistering attacking strengths, with
tournament MVP and joint top scorer Mahmoud spearheading the front
and creative Nashat Akram bossing the midfield alongside Qusay
Muneer and Haitham Kadhum. At the back, 23-year-old Noor Sabri
Abbas, whose cool-headed shot-stopping performance denied Korea
Republic in the semi-final penalty shoot-out, is Iraq's most
After guiding Iraq to the unprecedented Asian Cup triumph, coach Vieira departed and Norwegian Egil Olsen took over. Under the former Norway and Wimbledon boss, whose major task is leading Iraq through to South Africa 2010, the reigning Asian champions got their qualifying campaign off to a flying start by eliminating Pakistan 7-0 on aggregate.
However a 1-1 draw with China in the opener of the qualifying third round proved costly for Olsen, who consequently made way for Adnan Hamad who was expected to reproduce the old form. But a 2-0 loss at the hands of Qatar, followed by a 1-0 loss in Australia, condemned Iraq to last place and added further pressure on the new coach and his team to stage a major comeback.
The team did bounce back in the next two fixtures, sensationally overcoming Australia 1-0 before pulling off a 2-1 win over hosts China to put them in a strong position for the last match against Qatar, where they needed only a point to go through. However, they came up short in the all-important match, which saw their rivals register a 1-0 win to progress. Iraq missed out on a place in Asia's final round of qualifying for the second consecutive time, with coach Hamad stepping down at the conclusion of the campaign.