Iraq have achieved considerable success in recent years, lifting the AFC Asian Cup in 2007 and appearing at the FIFA Confederations Cup two years later. Most recently, the Lions of Mesopotamia managed to reach the fourth round of Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Defender Bassim Abbas performed a pivotal role in their recent success, playing in every match en route to their continental triumph and appearing in all three of their games at South Africa 2009, against New Zealand, Spain and South Africa.
After playing for various clubs in Iraq, Iran, Qatar and Turkey, Abbas returned to the capital of his homeland to join Baghdad FC, while the solid defender is currently training with the Iraqi national team ahead of the fourth and final round of Asian Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com caught up with the 29-year-old to discuss his career, what it's like playing under Zico and Iraq's chances of reaching world football’s showpiece event.
FIFA.com: Bassim, what do you think of Iraq’s group for the fourth round of Asian Zone qualifying?
Bassim Abbas: It’s a very difficult group. All the teams that have reached this stage are of a very high standard. We’re going to have to be at our best. I can tell you that the players and technical staff are hoping with all their hearts to qualify.
The current generation is often described as a golden generation for Iraqi football. What do you make of your chances in this group, and do you think you will qualify for Brazil 2014?
Every team can qualify. It will be a long time before we find another generation of Iraqi players as strong as this one. Zico has also brought young players into the fold, and I think that the combination of youth and experience should make us a good side. I’m hoping that these young players will take up the baton from us [senior players], especially as the squad will be heavily revamped after these qualifiers.
What is Zico’s philosophy as Iraq coach? And how is it different from the approach of his German predecessor, Wolfgang Sidka?
Zico has brought a lot to the national team. Brazilian coaches understand Iraqi players, and experience showed that he was similar to us. We won the Asian Cup with another Brazilian coach, Jorvan Vieira, who understood us perfectly. Zico can read people very well and he adapted very quickly to the Iraqi players. We’ve discussed many things with him. Personally, I really liked what he said to us when he first took the job: 'I will try to spare you the things that I didn’t like when I was a player, and apply those that will be useful to you.' Those words show his professionalism. Zico is quite simply one of the best coaches the Iraqi national team has ever had.
You have already faced Australia, Oman and Jordan in the past. Which of these three are the toughest opponents?
All three are top sides. Japan is the only team I’ve never played against, but Zico has coached them and he’ll be able to give us the information we need. As for Oman, Jordan and Australia, we know them like the back of our hand.
Brazilian coaches understand Iraqi players. We won the Asian Cup with Jorvan Vieira, who understood us perfectly. Zico can read people very well and he adapted very quickly to the Iraqi players.
Your first match is against Jordan. How important is it for you to begin with a positive result?
The first match will be a battle of the coaches, as Adnan Hamad and Zico know the two sides’ strengths and weaknesses very well. The players believe the first and second matches, against Jordan and Oman respectively, are fundamental to our hopes of qualifying, as they appear simpler than the following two games against Australia and Japan. We absolutely must take the six points that are up for grabs.
You have played in Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Qatar, and now you are back in Iraq. What has been the best experience of your professional career?
I have very fond memories of playing in Turkey. It’s not easy to play in the Turkish league, which is among the best in Europe. I stayed there for two seasons, and they will remain two of the best seasons of my career. I wanted to try my luck in an even more challenging league, but I had to return to Iraq for family reasons.
On the subject of your family, has the situation improved? And is there a chance we could see you playing outside Iraq once again?
Yes, things are much better now and I hope to be playing in a professional league again very soon. I’m hoping to do well in the World Cup qualifiers and attract attention from European clubs. At the moment I’m completely focused on the qualifiers and I want to give everything for my country.
You have played for Iraq in nearly every competition, including the AFC Asian Cup, the Men's Olympic Football Tournament and the FIFA Confederations Cup. But you have never appeared at a FIFA World Cup. Just how motivated are you to put that right?
The players in the national side talk about it a lot. We’ve played together for a long time, at both youth and senior level. We won the Asian Youth Championship and played at the 2004 Olympic Games, where we finished fourth. At senior level, we won the West Asian Championship and Asian Cup in 2007, and played in the Confederations Cup. We realised all of those dreams, and all we’re missing is an appearance at a World Cup finals. The current golden generation is more determined than ever to qualify. In training, our determination and concentration are at maximum levels. God willing, and with the prayers of all Iraqis, we will reach our goal.
You have been part of the national team for 11 years. How important is it to have experienced players in the squad for the final round of qualifiers for Brazil 2014?
I think experience is necessary in the fourth round, because you have to be able to cope with big-game pressure. It’s not easy for the young players to be involved in such crucial matches, particularly against such solid opponents and with so much mental, media and public pressure. The presence of experienced players in the Iraqi national team will play an important role in our progress, and I hope we’ll be there in Brazil in two years’ time.