Iraq have certainly run the gamut of emotions in the Asian qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Coming into the fourth round, morale was high after topping Group A in the previous phase ahead of Jordan, China PR and Singapore. The dream of qualifying for their second ever FIFA World Cup finals, 28 years after their debut at Mexico 1986, looked within their grasp.
But as the fourth round progressed, that optimism began to look misplaced, as the prospect of another disappointing conclusion to a qualifying campaign reared its head.
Poor startGiven the high expectations, the opening half of Iraq’s fourth-round campaign came as something of a shock to their fans. In their first Group B fixture they held Jordan to a creditable 1-1 draw in Amman, but after a second 1-1 draw against Oman in Doha, doubts began to creep in.
Coach Zico certainly seemed concerned, making numerous changes to the line-up ahead of their encounter with Japan. Yet even an improved performance in Saitama brought his men no tangible return, the 1-0 defeat leaving the side in dire straits as they prepared to welcome their next opponents, Australia.
Zico continued to experiment with the squad, this time choosing a blend of youth and experience. And while Alaa Adbul Zahra’s 72nd-minute strike put the home side ahead, a late collapse allowed Tim Cahill and Archie Thompson to hit back in quick succession and secure all three points for the Socceroos.
Halfway through their campaign and still without a win, the veteran Brazilian coach admitted that things were “difficult” yet remained adamant his side’s hopes were still alive.
Turning pointHaving backed his charges to bounce back, Zico released no more statements to the press, preferring to let his decisions speak for him. His first step was to add team captain Younis Mahmoud and playmaker Nashat Akram to the growing list of experienced players consigned to the bench or sidelined due to injury.
The side that ran out against Jordan on 14 November was mostly made up of younger players, leaving the team’s supporters fearing the worst. Another loss now would mean certain elimination.
But with their backs to the wall, the west Asian side showed their mettle. During the first half, Iraq were content to defend their goal and sound out their opponents. After the interval, however, the home side took the game to their opponents, launching wave after wave of attacks until rising star Hammadi Ahmed finally cracked home a left-footer from outside the area for the only goal of the game on 86 minutes.
Speaking afterwards, Hammadi could not contain his delight: “It was a really tough match. Our aim was to win, which was vital for the side. When the shot hit the back of the net it took a few moments to sink in. I ran to the others and we celebrated. We were very focussed in this game, especially the second half.”
The team’s first win elevated them to third in Group B, behind Australia on goal difference and ahead of Oman. “We’d promised ourselves we’d win,” Hammadi said, “and dedicate the victory to the coaching staff, the federation and of course, all Iraqi fans. Now we have the confidence to complete the job in our last three games.”
But Hammadi was far from Iraq’s only star in Doha. Captain and goalkeeper Noor Sabri was a massive presence throughout the 90 minutes. Sabri, an integral part of the AFC Asian Cup winning side from 2007 who has struggled to hold down a place in recent months, played well in the Japan game but was unbeatable against Jordan. He dealt calmly with a number of fine efforts and kept his composure throughout.
“The team’s gone through some tough times,” the custodian confessed after the game. “Lots of people expected the worst from this match, but the players showed amazing fighting spirit and things are looking up. We’re hoping for success in the upcoming games, which will decide our fate.”
Zico’s gambleUnquestionably, Zico ran considerable risks with his selection. In the lead-up to the encounter he had faced strident criticisms of his decision to side-line major stars. And while he knew the final say remained his, the coach also realised that his reputation hung in the balance.
Following the victory, Zico finally broke his silence, saying: “I’ve always had faith in these boys - I know just what they’re capable of. They fought hard on the pitch, they carried out my instructions to the letter and in the end they deserve their win.”
“Before the game,” he continued, “I told them that reputations don’t win you games. It’s football players that do that. I’m satisfied now. We have a real chance to turn our fortunes around and improve in the months ahead.”
This is the second time Zico has guided Iraq to a victory over their neighbours, having earlier managed it with a 3-1 third-round win in Amman. Yet while he has proven he can get the best out of his charges, his margin for error remains very slim for the three games that remain.
Have your say!With Iraq back on track after a crucial win over Jordan, do they have what it takes to secure a direct qualifying berth for Brazil 2014?