Iraq are flying high in Asia’s 2022 World Cup preliminaries
Success, including victory over rivals IR Iran, belies ongoing issues
Ali Adnan, a key member of the team, discusses their campaign
Ali Adnan wasn’t even born when Iraq last reached the FIFA World Cup™. But he was very much alive, and brimming with life, when the Lions of Mesopotamia famously brought home the AFC Asian Cup in 2007.
“I was 13 then – still just a kid – and I remember being out with my friends, dancing on the streets until the morning,” he told FIFA.com.
“Everyone knows that Iraqis haven’t had it easy in recent times and, at that point, people were usually scared to go out at night. But when we won the Asian Cup, everyone went out on the streets – and it felt like everyone stuck together more after that point. It really meant a lot. The people back home all still talk about that team now.”
Adnan smiles broadly at the memory, and for good reason. For he knows that the current national team – in which he is a mainstay – are on course to become similarly beloved. They can secure that place in folklore by becoming just the second Iraq side, and the first in 36 years, to qualify for a World Cup. And Adnan believes they will.
The results suggest his confidence is well founded. With five of their eight matches played in the second round of Asian qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Iraq are unbeaten and top their section. They are also five points clear of old rivals IR Iran, albeit having played a game more.
“Everything is going really well,” said the powerful left-back, who plays his club football for MLS outfit Vancouver Whitecaps. “As a team, we’re enjoying a good moment. We now have three games left in this second phase, and my hope is that after that, we’ll have taken another step closer to the World Cup.
“Iraq has only been to a World Cup once, and not since 1986 – a long time ago. But I think we’ve now reached the moment to qualify again. We have the players, the staff, the support from our country – we have everything we need. That’s why I believe we will be there in Qatar in 2022.”
31 March vs Hong Kong (A)
4 June vs Cambodia (H)
9 June vs IR Iran (A)
The high point of Iraq’s campaign thus far came in November, with a memorable 2-1 win over old rivals IR Iran. For Adnan, it’s another memory that stands out because of the joy it brought to his countrymen.
“That’s always in my mind when I play for the national team: how can I make these people happy?” he said. “That’s why I felt so good [after beating IR Iran]. If you know the Iraqi people, they love football. In the build-up to that game, everything – shops, schools - were closed just so that people could watch it.
“I’ve been playing for the national team for a long time now and, for me, it’s still the best – there’s a different feeling than playing for your club. You can feel the millions of people looking to you, wanting you to win, and that’s very special”
Adnan comes from footballing stock. His father, Adnan Kadhim, represented Iraq at the 1977 FIFA World Youth Championship (later renamed the FIFA U-20 World Cup), and there was great pride when Ali stepped out at the same tournament in 2013. His late uncle, Ali Kadhim, was one of the greatest strikers in Iraq’s history, and at one stage held the national team’s all-time scoring record. “They helped me a lot,” Ali said. “The only thing is, both of them were forwards, so I’m the odd one out as the only defender in the family!”
Iraq’s deserved triumph over World Cup regulars IR Iran, and their wider success in qualifying, is all the more remarkable considering the ongoing difficulties the team faces. The most obvious are the barriers preventing the hosting of matches on Iraqi soil, with all but one of their home qualifiers thus far - including that win over IR Iran - having been played in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
The exception was an emotional 2-0 win over Hong Kong in Basra that, remarkably, represented Iraq’s first competitive fixture on home soil in eight years. Adnan’s hope is that such fixtures now become the norm.
“If this team was able to play at home, we’d be at the World Cup every four years – I’m sure of that,” he said. “We get so much support and, no matter what team we play – big or small – we get a full stadium with 60-70,000 people there.
“It definitely feels so much better playing at home, with your people there and your family able to see you play. I really hope we have lots more games in Iraq going forward, and that we can keep making the people happy.”