Burning with the ambition to rub shoulders with the biggest names in Asian football, Jordan face two important games against Iraq and China PR in Group A of the third round of Asian Zone qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. One thing is for certain: these encounters will provide a true measure of the side’s ability to book a place in the showpiece finals for the first time in their history.
It was in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Mexico 1986 that Jordan made their first appearance in the preliminaries of the world’s premier football tournament, when they played Iraq on 29 March 1985 in front of a home crowd in Amman. Though they lost the game 3-2, two spectacular goals by Jamal Abou Abed and Rateb Al Dawoud meant the newcomers made a favourable impression.
Unfortunately for Jordan, their desire to make it to the latter stages of qualifying was hampered by inexperience and a lack of exposure to top-flight Asian football. Indeed, it was not until 2004 that they were in with a genuine chance of progressing to the final round of Asian Zone qualifying.
In an impressive group campaign in the second stage of Germany 2006 qualifying, Jordan recorded a stunning 1-0 defeat of Iran at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran in their third group game to put them in a great position to progress. Yet the Iranians avenged that loss with a 2-0 win in Ammam, which, coupled with a 2-0 reverse against Qatar in their final game, ensured the Jordanians’ finished three points shy of qualification.
In their six appearances to date in FIFA World Cup qualifying, Jordan have played a total of 34 matches, with 12 wins, six draws and 16 losses, scoring 45 goals and conceding 51 in the process.
A ray of hope
However, since coach Adnan Hamad has taken the Jordan national team reins they have come on apace, underlined by reaching the penultimate round of Asian Zone qualifying for only the second time – and this despite a distinctly unpromising start. They received a further boost with a string of impressive results at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, where they only eventually went out against Uzbekistan in the quarter-finals. They have since proved that this new-found swagger is justified, having recorded their biggest ever win in a FIFA World Cup qualifier with a 9-0 thrashing of Nepal in July.
With his team riding high on a wave of public support, Iraq-born coach Hamad believes now is the perfect time to turn potential into real success: “We’ve a great chance of reaching the qualifying final round, with two teams from the group going through.
“Support from the public and official funding is at an all-time high and the players are fully prepared for the task ahead,” he continued. “Group A isn’t easy, but we’re focused on winning maximum points at home and picking up what we can away. We have to work hard and be tactically astute for these matches.”
For their opening third qualifying round encounter, the Jordanians will travel to Arbil to take on Iraq, whom they last played in a FIFA World Cup qualifier back in 1993 in Baghdad’s Al Shaab Stadium. The two sides have faced each other six times over the course of Jordan’s first three qualifying campaigns - for Mexico 1986, Italy 1990 and USA 1994 – with the Iraqis winning five and the teams sharing a solitary draw.
Quite apart from the importance of making a strong start in the group, the game clearly has a special significance for Jordan supremo Hamad, who is a former Iraq international and national team coach. “It’s true that I’ll be up against my own country,” said Hamad, on the first time he or one of his sides has taken on his homeland. “But it’s a question of professionalism.
“My responsibilities lie with Jordan and it’s my job to ensure they qualify from the group. Of course, that doesn’t prevent me hoping that Jordan and Iraq both manage to qualify! At the end of the day I want my team to come away from this game with a positive result.”
Whatever the result against Iraq, nothing less than victory will do when Jordan host China PR on 6 September. A home victory and the three points it brings will be crucial to the team’s morale and their chances of progressing further, especially if their opening match in Arbil does not go according to plan.
The two sides have met twice in FIFA World Cup qualifiers, with both matches coming in the preliminaries for USA 1994. The gulf in quality back then was emphasised by the Chinese winning 3-0 away in Jordan then 4-1 at home, though the Jordanians have managed to close this gap in the years since.
Their recent form, plus the fact that many of the Jordanian first-choice players have experience against the Chinese, suggests that victory is far from impossible. Indeed, veteran striker Mahmoud Shelbaieh will be particularly looking forward to the occasion, having already struck twice in a friendly against China.
Speed and tactical awareness will be key, and the Jordan set-up have been tailoring their training regime to concentrate on these very areas. Helping them in that regard is a Brazilian weight-lifting coach - whose influence came to the fore in Jordan’s impressive 1-1 group draw with eventual champions Japan at this year’s Asian Cup.
A confident team
After a recent run of superb performances, morale in the Jordan camp is high, with the players clearly convinced they have what it takes to book one of the two available berths in the fourth round of qualifying. Nowhere is this confidence more evident than experienced defensive duo of Bashar Bani Yaseen and Hatem Aqel.
“We’re good enough to mount a strong challenge in this group,” said Aqel, a sentiment echoed by Yaseen, who vowed: “This time, we have to win and prove that we’ve made progress. We’ve got all the ingredients to take on the best sides in Asia, and all that we need now is a bit of luck on the day. You can’t do without luck in football and I hope it’s on our side.”
Star striker Hasan Abdel Fattah, who knocked four past Nepal in the second round, also made it clear that his ambition has no limits: “Sure, it’s a big ask to reach the finals of Brazil 2014, but we’ve got the confidence, the skill and the desire to succeed: all we have to do is stay strong on the pitch. It’s a long and rocky road but we love a challenge, and we’ve already proved that when it comes to the crunch, we’ve got what it takes.”