A famous quote by Ernest Hemingway provides a neat way to sum up the career of Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri: “Courage is grace under pressure”. Taking the decision to reverse his international retirement certainly took courage, while the experienced custodian now finds himself under pressure as Iraq attempt to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
The latest chapter of his national team story began in November 2013, when the now 31-year-old keeper chose to step away from the international set-up. It was a decision that came as something of a surprise, as earlier in the year he had been voted Goalkeeper of the Tournament at the Gulf Cup of Nations in Bahrain, where Iraq finished runners-up after an extra-time defeat to United Arab Emirates in the final.
“I took the decision to retire while I was at a training camp with the squad,” said Sabri, first called up to the Iraqi national team in 2003 and part of the squad that won the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. “What made up my mind was a slump in performance and the difficult circumstances the team were having to play under. I also wanted to let younger keepers have the opportunity to play for Iraq.”
Away from the Lions of Mesopotamia for over 18 months, he captained Naft Alwasat to their first ever Iraqi League title to further underline his outstanding talent. “Even so, my heart and soul stayed with the national team all the time,” revealed the veteran stopper. “I’m really attached to them and, even after I decided to retire, I always kept up with what was going on with them. I’d watch their matches on TV and wish I was there on the pitch.”
Public demand was growing and there were campaigns on social media for me to return. That’s what made up my mind.
Sabri’s brilliant domestic performances and Iraq’s lack of defensive resilience in his absence - the team conceded a hefty nine goals in six games at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup - were key to the growing calls for the keeper to return to the national team fold. “There was a lot of pressure for me to return to the team,” he explained, when quizzed about his decision to end his self-enforced absence.
“The fans were not satisfied with the team’s goalkeeping and the new keepers couldn’t win them over. Public demand was growing and there were campaigns on social media for me to return. That’s what made up my mind.”
Now back between the sticks under the leadership of coach of Yahya Alwan, Sabri made quite an impression on his first appearance since his return. In a friendly against Lebanon on 26 August, saving saved a first-half penalty in a 3-2 win - a timely morale boost with their opening Russia 2018 qualifiers fast approaching.
Dealing with the pressure
“When I decided to retire, I talked to my family and friends, and they were convinced that I should step aside and give younger goalkeepers a chance to gain international experience. But when I decided to come out of retirement, my friends and family were also happy too,” said Sabri, who was welcomed back with open arms by his national-team colleagues.
“Those closest to me were a bit worried because, as a goalkeeper, I’m under a lot of pressure from fans and the media,” continued Sabri. “As far as I’m concerned though, pressure is part of the game and I know how to handle it. What’s more, I want to pass on what I know to our other keepers, so that the goalkeeping position is in safe hands in the future.”
He definitely has plenty to pass on, including self-belief and experience aplenty ahead of what will be his third consecutive involvement in a World Cup qualifying phase. And with Iraq having qualified just once before for the global finals, at Mexico 1986, repeating that feat would be a glorious addition to to the country’s rich football history.
“Since Mexico 1986, every Iraqi national squad has strived to qualify for the World Cup again, but the situation in Iraq stopped that from happening - there’s no doubt about that,” reasoned Sabri. “But the team today has 14 professional players based outside Iraq and that makes us optimistic about qualifying this time.”
That optimism could soon be put to the test for Sabri and his team-mates, who play their first match in Group F of Round 2 of AFC Zone qualifying for Russia 2018 against Chinese Taipei on 3 September. Five days later they will face off with Thailand, currently top of the section having won their first two games.
“Both these matches will be really important for us, especially the one against Thailand, who’ve got six points already,” said Sabri. “Some people say this group is easy, but that’s not true. All the other teams are from east Asia and that makes things difficult for us. We’ll have to do a lot of travelling and we’re not used to the climate over there either.”
Yet despite the pressure, and the size of the task facing Sabri and Co in the race for a berth at Russia 2018, Iraq fans know they have a goalkeeper they can count on. And as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle once said: “No pressure, no diamonds.”