Iraq receive unexpected boost
© AFP

Iraq, under new coach Bora Milutinovic, make their debut in South Africa later this week at the FIFA Confederations Cup having soared nine places to their current position of 77 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking this month.

The reigning Asian champions play no international matches last month but since the rankings were released they have earned an impressive 1-1 draw with Poland in Cape Town. Milutinovic and his side will undoubtedly be buoyed by their improvement in the world pecking order as they prepare for their opening match against host nation South Africa on Sunday.

Upward move
The nine-rung jump was the largest climb in the Ranking among Asian teams during the month of June. However, the move pales into insignificance when compared to Iraq's biggest single jump achieved in December 1996 when they shot up an incredible 31 places to 98.

This astonishing leap could largely be attributed to their brilliant performance in that year's AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, where they swept past Iran and Thailand to reach the last eight. With the achievement kick-starting a revival in the nation's footballing fortunes, the men from the middle-east embarked on an eight-year upward climb in the global standings, culminating in an all-time high of 39 in October 2004.

Three years later, under the tutelage of philosophical Brazilian Jorvan Vieira the Iraqis took the 2007 AFC Asian Cup by storm becoming surprise champions. The national team received a double reward for this history-making triumph by earning a coveted place at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, and making a dramatic 16-place advance up the Ranking to reach 64.

Global ambitions
Winning their first Asian silverware was a shot in the arm for the Iraqis, who naturally set their sights on translating their continental hegemony onto the world stage. Their ambitions, however, were dealt a severe blow with the Iraqis failing to progress to Asia's final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

Despite the disappointment, the team still has much to live up to, with the forthcoming FIFA Confederations Cup providing them a timely opportunity to prove themselves on the international scene. Looking to recapture the magic of 2007, the Iraq FA reappointed Vieira last September but the Brazilian's second spell lasted only five months when he stepped down this February.

Radhi Shenaishil played the role of team caretaker for the next couple of months before the legendary Milutinovic assumed the reins. Despite being charged with leading Iraq out of a group which also features Spain and New Zealand, the 64-year-old is upbeat that his team can achieve the goal.

"In sport we always do our utmost to achieve greatness," said the Serb, who boasts the unique record of guiding five different nations at the FIFA World Cup finals. "Spain should be the strongest of the group but against South Africa and New Zealand we have a chance."

With Milutinovic's pedigree as a top tactician unquestionable, Iraq, too, have firmly established their status as one of Asia's dark horses capable of upsetting anyone when on song. Having only minimal preparation suggests that the team head into the FIFA Confederations Cup underdone, but the mixture of a vastly experienced coach and an array of mercurial talents could just prove the formula that sees Iraq rediscover the old magic once again.