Iraq took their tentative first steps onto the world stage almost 40 years ago, with a debut appearance in the qualifiers for the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
Yet it was only at Mexico 1986 that they finally made it through the preliminary stages to represent Asia in the finals, a glorious achievement but, so far, unique of its kind.
Now, with their national team midway through their tenth qualifying phase, Iraqi fans are daring to dream that the 2007 AFC Asian Cup winners can repeat history and book a ticket to Brazil 2014.
It has been eight long years since Iraq last made it to the final round of Asian Zone qualifying, having missed out in the run-up to both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. Therefore it is no surprise that, now they have made it safely into Group B of Round Four this year, their supporters believe they can go all the way.
Nor is the optimism unwarranted, given Iraq’s Round Three performances were enough to inspire the gloomiest of fans. Last August, a few days after former Brazil legend Zico took over the reins as coach, the team were rocked by a painful 2-0 home defeat by Jordan.
However, spurred on by their new supremo, Iraq hit back, notching five straight wins against section rivals Singapore, China PR and Jordan to finish top of their group with 15 points and 14 goals scored.
In an interview with FIFA.com, Zico showed his delight at making it into Round Four: “We managed to overcome so many obstacles and did what was asked of us. The final round will demand more from all of us and we have to be fully ready for each game, trust in our ability and prove that we deserve to be out there competing.”
A slow start
Despite Zico’s confidence that he could ready his team in time, the end of the domestic season and the start of Round Four appeared to leave little margin for his charges to recover. Indeed, they have been visibly off the pace in their first two games.
Iraq let a win slip through their fingers in a 1-1 draw in Jordan and then, despite having over a week to recharge their batteries before meeting an Oman side that had to play three games in rapid succession, they could only produce another 1-1 stalemate. Perhaps more worrying, on this occasion it was the Iraqis who had to snatch a point from the jaws of defeat.
“It definitely wasn’t a case of losing two points,” said Zico, in philosophical mood after the game against Jordan. “We were playing a strong team in their backyard. We had several chances and failed to convert them but it was a good enough start and it will give us the confidence to push on.”
However, the team’s performance in Doha against Oman left the coach seething: “We did not do our job, especially in midfield. It was not the game of football we needed to play,” he said, before underlining the difficult task ahead. “This draw just goes to show what a tough group we’re in. It will be impossible to predict any of the results, I think.”
The run of Round Three victories set the bar high for the national squad, which still features many of the stars from the Asian Cup win in 2007. And captain Younis Mahmoud must be feeling the pressure more than most.
Iraq’s top scorer in Asian Zone qualifying with seven strikes to his name, the talented forward’s performances will play a huge role in determining whether his team goes through. His Round Four displays are encouraging so far, having played Nashat Akram through to score against Jordan then notching himself against Oman with a skilfully directed free-kick.
All that is missing is a win and, following the draw against Oman, Mahmoud was quick to voice his discontent. “Unfortunately we didn’t do what was asked of us,” the 29-year-old said. “We made errors. The opposition kept possession well and they were helped by the early goal but we kept pressing and got the equaliser.
“We created some great chances but we just didn’t manage to put them away,” he continued. “I’d say that one point is good for Oman and bad for us.”
Preparing for the future
With four points gone begging already, the Iraqis will need to make sure they do not commit the same mistakes against much stronger upcoming opponents. Their third Group B match comes against Asian giants Japan on 11 September in Saitama, before they return to Doha to face Australia on 16 October.
The Japanese look particularly intimidating at home, having dismissed Oman 3-0 and Jordan 6-0, and even a point against them would give Iraq a huge boost ahead of a must-win encounter with the Socceroos.
Intriguingly, Iraq’s Brazilian coach has previously managed Japan, taking the Samurai Blue to victory in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup and guiding them to a place at Germany 2006.
Prior to Round Four he even went so far as to issue a bold challenge to his former charges: “The group contains strong, competitive sides but I don’t fear them and they can be beaten. I think Iraq can beat Japan.”
And there is little doubt that Zico has done his best to prepare Iraq for the challenges and changes ahead. Taking the opportunity to rest several key players, he was still able to lead a relatively inexperienced outfit to third place in this year’s Arab Nations Cup.
With his main men back in the fold and his youngsters buoyed by that promising campaign, could the road to Brazil 2014 begin in Saitama?