Proud finish sends Iraq flying
© AFP

With Iraq's fairy tale AFC Asian Cup 2007 conquest still fresh on the lips of football fans the world over, it is no surprise that they have been rewarded by a 16-place shoot up to 64th on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The milestone achievement further cemented Iraq's status as one of Asia's top footballing nations, and they have duly outstripped Oman and China to rank seventh in continental terms.

Led by Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, a solitary Younis Mahmoud goal was enough for Iraq to overcome Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup final and get their hands on the trophy for the first time. Moreover, by reigning supreme the team put smiles on the faces of their suffering compatriots back home.

It also sent out a strong message to the world, as tournament MVP Mahmoud told FIFA.com. "Despite the political turmoil, they are still optimistic people". The tournament's four-goal joint top scorer went on to admit that it was such a belief in themselves that carried the team through.

His views were echoed by Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who said the team's success was a tremendous boost for the people. "Our Lions of The Two Rivers have taught the world an important lesson," he said. "Through determination and tenacity they snatched victory. They could make it as long as they decided to win."

Prodigies come of age
The team's rebuilding process can be traced back to the previous edition of the Asian Cup three years ago, when Iraq fielded an U-23 side that stormed into the quarter-finals. Then, at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004, this same side reached the last four.

Having gained precious international experience through these campaigns, thirteen players went on the form part of Iraq's Asian Cup squad in July. Mahmoud had been scoring consistently for both club and country and Nashat Akram developed into a high-quality midfielder around whom the team rotated, while Noor Sabri Abbas proved solid between the posts.

With little time given to prepare themselves under a new coach, Iraq made a slow start, drawing 1-1 with co-hosts Thailand in the tournament curtain-raiser. But in their second outing they pulled off an upset, beating hotly-tipped Australia 3-1 with Nashat Akram and Hawar Mohammed on target, before Karrar Jassim sealed a memorable victory.

A goalless draw against Oman set up a quarter-final meeting against Vietnam, where Vieira's charges ran out 2-0 winners. With a place in the final at stake, the unfancied Iraqis battled bravely to hold two-time Asian champions Korea Republic to a goalless draw over 120 minutes and force a penalty shootout, which the Gulf side won.

In the concluding match against Saudi Arabia, Vieira's men created the majority of the chances and Mahmoud's header proved enough to crown Iraq as continental champions.

If Iraq's proud finish in the Asian Cup is anything to go by, it seems that they are set to confirm their tag as an emerging power in the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. They will play home-and-away games against Pakistan in the opening knockout round, and while a place in the second round should be within Iraq's grasp, they have set themselves the target of booking a place on the biggest stage of all for the first time since 1986.

"Encouraged by the tremendous success, we can make it to the finals on the world stage as long as we stick to our performances in the Asian Cup," added Mahmoud.