As Jordan prepare to make their debut appearance in the fourth round of Asian Zone qualifying for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, FIFA.com spoke to their captain, defensive veteran Bashar Bani Yaseen, about the challenges facing his side as they prepare for their first two Group B encounters against Iraq and Japan.
Since their first appearance in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers back in 1985, an often inexperienced and underprepared Jordan have consistently failed to make it past the first round.
Bani Yaseen himself was a member of the Jordan team that competed in the qualifiers for Germany 2006. Following a run of three consecutive victories, they needed just a single point from their final match against Iran in Amman. Yet despite holding their own until the dying minutes of the game, the Jordanians ended up beaten - a painful defeat which clearly still rankles.
“That match meant a lot to us for sure,” said the defender. “Everything was set up for us to progress through to the final round and we played a highly tactical game against Iran. But this is football. They made the most of two chances in the final minutes and scored twice.”
Nor does he have any doubts about what separated the two sides: “They had the experience of players like Ali Daei, [Ali] Karimi and [Mehdi] Mahdavikia. It was a bitter pill to swallow.”
All these years later Bani Yaseen is still competing, albeit now older and wiser. Jordan’s Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad made him captain in time for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, which is yet another responsibility to add to his defensive duties.
And though he turns 35 two days prior to his team's opening Group B match against Iraq, his performances in the previous round showed that both body and spirit are still holding up well.
“After our excellent Asian Cup performances in Qatar, we knew we had a chance of making it to the final round of qualifiers,” said Bani Yaseen, who is justifiably proud of the team’s displays to date. “We've worked hard, stuck to our plans and won four games in a row, which meant we were one of the first Asian sides to guarantee qualification.
“We made everyone in Jordan really happy,” he continued, with a smile. “It was a great feeling. It’s what we were aiming for since the start of qualifiers.”
The fourth round poses an even more formidable challenge. First up is a home game against Iraq followed immediately by an away encounter against the ever-dangerous Japan. The experienced Bani Yaseen is a certainty to make the team sheet for these momentous match-ups, and is under no illusions about the challenge that lies ahead.
“We know what we’re getting ourselves into,” he said. “These qualifiers are bound to be difficult. Every one of us wants to go to Brazil, but by the same token we're aware that the international pedigree and experience of Japan and Australia make them favourites.
“That said, predictions are fine on paper," he continued defiantly. "The real contest takes place on the pitch and we bring a lot to every game: fighting spirit, determination, solid plans and high morale. That gives us an edge.”
Glancing over at his team-mates, absorbed in their training routines, he added: “These guys will play like they have a shared brain. We’ll brush off the exhaustion of a long and trying season and come together to achieve our goal.
“We want to do well in our first two games,” he went on. “They’re both strong sides and it will be brilliant to play them. Hopefully we can come away with a couple of positive results to get us off to a strong start.”
The selfless warrior
Over the course of an international career that began back in 1999, Bani Yaseen has proved himself to be an indefatigable fighter, with rare qualities of selflessness and courage. For example, in the course of a fiercely contested quarter-final against Uzbekistan at the last Asian Cup, fans watched as Bani Yaseen hurled himself into the path of a vicious goal-bound strike - losing two front teeth in the process.
Bashar looks back on the incident with a smile, revealing a cosmetically enhanced gap-free grin. “We didn’t want to lose,” he said. “We wanted to get to the semi-finals, but we couldn't field our strongest side. When I saw that the Uzbeki striker had a clear shot on goal I had no choice but to block it. I didn’t want to touch the ball with my hand so I chose to use my face. That’s just how I am.
“A moment later I glanced down and saw two teeth on the ground," he continued, able to chuckle at the memory. "It was an awkward moment. The physio asked me if I wanted to come off for good but I couldn’t even imagine abandoning my team-mates. I got the bleeding stopped, ran back on and finished the game.”
Early in the second half Jordan conceded two quick-fire goals, but their captain's courage remained intact, running up the pitch to connect with a corner and reduce the deficit to a single goal. That was the last goal of the match but it ensured Jordan left the AFC Asian Cup with their heads held high. The image of a bloodied, gap-toothed Bashar Bani Yaseen fighting on to the final whistle is one that his country’s fans will never forget.
Jordan have played against Japan on three occasions, with Bani Yaseen featuring in two of them. Both were Asian Cup games, the first at China 2004 and the second at Qatar 2011. The experiences have certainly made a strong impression on the defender’s memory.
“The first time was a quarter-final in China," he recalled. "Everyone expected us to lose heavily but, though we missed a lot of chances, we showed we had come to compete and after 120 epic minutes of open play it came down to penalties. The pressure was intense.
“With two penalties to go we were leading 3-1,” he continued. “We only needed to net one more for the win but weirdly we missed both. The Japanese clawed their way back to 3-3 and then we were in sudden death. Both teams failed at the first attempt, but they scored with their second. I then stepped up to try to level the score.”
He paused for a moment then resumed: “I sent the keeper the wrong way but the ball rolled a few inches off the mark and I hit the right-hand post. We lost. I couldn’t believe the ball betrayed us and gave the game to Japan!”
Seven years later Bani Yaseen was playing Japan once again, this time a first-round match in Qatar. And having taken a 1-0 lead prior to the interval, the Jordanians decided to drop back and defend their advantage for the remainder of the game, only for Japan to level the scores deep into added time.
“We were moments away from beating them, but a small lapse in concentration at the last corner of the match was all it took," said the experienced international, recalling how victory slipped from Jordan's grasp. "We still came away with a point and we went on to qualify for the quarter-finals. We won respect!”
As the interview concluded, Bani Yaseen highlighted how the upcoming game is a chance for Jordan to set the record straight. “This time we’ll be playing them on their turf,” he said. “We know they'll want to win at all costs but for our part we intend to make it as difficult as possible for them. It will be tough but we’re hoping for success.”