Iraq supporters have experienced a whole host of emotions over the last ten days, which began with their side playing out a disappointing draw with Thailand in Group F of the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, a setback that led to coach Yahya Alwan being relieved of his duties.
Within a few hours of his departure, the Iraqi Football Association had called on the services of the country’s Olympic team coach Abdul Ghani Shahad, handing him the reins of the senior side for the crucial final game at home to Vietnam, a match the Iraqis could not afford to lose if they were to advance to the third round.
The national FA’s decision to turn to the 48-year-old was founded on the excellent results he has achieved in recent times with Naft Alwasat, the side he took to the Iraqi title in July 2015, a triumph he then followed up by ensuring Iraq’s safe passage to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
The newly installed Shahad duly oversaw the win that Iraq wanted against Vietnam, a 1-0 victory that guaranteed them second place in the section and with it a berth in the third round of the AFC preliminaries for Russia 2018.
Discussing the factors that enabled Iraq to come away with the points in their high-stakes meeting with the Vietnamese, Shahad told FIFA.com: “We prepared the team psychologically and mentally in a short space of time. We also studied Vietnam and watched their recent matches. The team’s morale was at rock-bottom but we simply had to win.”
He added: “There was a huge amount of pressure on the players and we tried to take some of it off them. I gave them permission to leave the hotel a few times so they could relax. We also gave some new players a chance and it proved a success.”
With Iraq safely through to the third round, where the 12 remaining sides in the competition will be drawn into two groups, Shahad has a unique opportunity to steer the country to the World Cup for only the second time, its debut appearance having come at Mexico 1986.
Assessing his side’s chances, he said: “Our next mission is a tough one and we’re going to have to work very hard. We need to implement a long-term strategy because most of the players are over 30 now, and we have to give the younger players a chance to develop their talent. We need to put our faith in them so we can build a new generation.”
It would appear that Shahad has already embarked on that generational handover, having promoted several of his Olympic charges to the side for the Vietnam game, among them front man Mohannad Abdul-Raheem, who scored the only goal of the match. Heaping praise on the match-winner and the rest of the new faces, Shahad said: “I would have played more youngsters if I’d taken charge of the team earlier. We need to go and do it again so that they can pick up experience.
“Mohannad is one of the future stars of the Iraq team and he needs to be given several chances, even if he has a bad game or two. I brought him into the Olympic team and I have a lot of faith in him, despite his injury. He’s managed to put in some fine performances with the U-23s and he did well against Vietnam too.”
Wrapping up the conversation, Shahad stressed the importance of keeping faith with the players who will represent the country at Rio 2016, believing they can go on to form the core of the senior team, which will embark on the third round of the Russia 2018 qualifiers a month after the Olympics.
“It won’t be an easy task and we’ll have to work hard to get good results at Rio 2016, just as we did at Athens 2004,” said the coach. “We’ll be in there with the 16 best teams in the world, and we’ll have two objectives in mind: to get good results and show what we can do on a technical level. Playing at the Olympics will provide a few of the players with the preparation they need for the third round of the World Cup qualifiers in September.”
Iraq fans are no doubt hoping Shahad’s vision will become a reality and that his charges will shine at Rio 2016 and make it all the way to Russia 2018.