When Alaa Abdulzahra inherited the Iraq captain’s armband at the start of the third round of the Asian qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, he would not have thought his side would only have three points to their name at the halfway stage of the competition.
Iraq's fans were confident the Lions of Mesopotamia would more than hold their own against the big guns in their group, which contains Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, United Arab Emirates and Thailand. Sadly for them, their heroes have managed just one win so far, against Thailand, with their four other outings all ending in defeat.
Speaking to FIFA.com, the 29-year-old Abdulzahra puts those disappointing results down to bad luck: “Things haven’t started as we planned, though we’ve played really well in every game, except the last one against the Emirates. We haven’t had a lot of luck in most of our games, especially against Saudi Arabia and Japan, losing in the last few minutes.”
Iraq led the Saudis until the final ten minutes, when Nawaf Al-Abed struck twice from the spot to give the visitors victory, while Japan scored five minutes into stoppage time to take maximum points against the Iraqis and join the Green Falcons at the top of the table.
“Everything would have been different if we’d come away from the Saudi Arabia and Japan games with something. They’re at the top of the group,” said the Al Zawraa forward. “The defeat to the Saudis changed things for us in the qualifiers. We didn’t expect the match to turn like that and it affected us in the following games.”
Iraq currently lie fourth in their group, seven points behind Saudi Arabia and Japan, and six adrift of Australia, who occupy the play-off place. The two third-placed sides in the two groups will face off home and away, with the winners advancing to the inter-confederation play-off against the fourth-placed team from the final round in the CONCACAF Zone.
Though the Iraqis face a massive challenge in their five remaining matches, Abdulzahra has not given up hope and believes his side can still achieve something: “There are still five matches to play and we can come back strong, especially as we’ve got three home matches to come. We’re hoping to pick up nine points.”
We could make it to Russia if we beat our direct opponents.
The first of those three games will come against Australia on 23 March in Tehran, a meeting that the much-travelled striker, who has played in Qatar, Iran, Jordan and Sudan, sees as vitally important.
“It could be a turning point, because we’d have a good chance of qualifying if we win,” said the skipper. “That would give us six points and we’d cut the gap on the teams at the top. We could make it to Russia if we beat our direct opponents.”
Abdulzahra has to get back in among the goals, however, if the Lions of Mesopotamia are to prevail against Australia, with the Iraqis then heading to Saudi Arabia five days later. The front man, who played at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 and is taking part in his third World Cup qualifying campaign, has yet to score on the road to Russia 2018.
“All the forwards want to score, but the most important thing for me is that the team picks up three points in every match,” he explained. “I scored against Australia in the last qualifiers. We’ve also been losing games in the last few minutes. I hope I can get a goal in the next match so my team can win.”
Anxious to open his account in this competition, Abdulzahra still hopes he can grace the World Cup one day: “It’s a childhood dream and I hope I can make it happen by helping my team-mates, because it’s a dream shared by all the people.”