Most people would agree that Iraq’s chances of surviving the fourth round of qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ are currently not great. With a meagre five points to their name – courtesy of one win, two draws and two losses – the team are propping up Group B in the Asian Zone qualifiers.
For all that, Iraqi striker Hammadi Ahmed has an unshakeable belief that his team can come back from the brink. With three games left against Oman, Japan and Australia, all scheduled for a two-week period in June, Iraq’s quest for one of the group’s two direct qualifying berths for Brazil 2014 is still in the balance.
Hammadi, for one, believes the dream is still alive. Speaking to FIFA.com, the 23-year-old forward talked about his side’s chances of making it to Brazil and his part in their lone fourth-round victory.
On the upThe man now dubbed Iraq’s David Villa had a modest beginning in the game, running out for local youth clubs in his home town of Nahiyat Al Ishaqi before moving up a rung with Salah Al Din. But it was not until he was taken on by First Division outfit Samarra that his talents came to wider attention, and in September 2010, just seven years after he began playing competitive football, he was snapped up by perennial championship contenders Al Quwa Al Jawiya.
Ahmed confesses that it was his “desire to play for one of the historic, popular clubs” that prompted him to join Al Quwa Al Jawiya. “They have a huge support base and, though I received a lot of offers, I chose them,” he explained.
As a key member of the five-time league champions’ squad, the young Ahmed blossomed. In his first season for Al Quwa Al Jawiya he finished second in the goalscoring charts, before going one better in 2011-12. His consistency caught the eye of then Iraqi national coach Zico, who called the tyro into his squad for the fourth round of Asian qualifiers for Brazil 2014.
The Brazilian coach could not have asked for a more enthusiastic recruit to the cause: “Zico gave me a chance to represent my national side, and I’ve been able to prove myself despite not playing in my natural position at the heart of the attack. But wherever I play, I’m always ready to serve the team and hope I can continue to do well with them and score a lot of goals.”
Crunch matchesThe sharp-shooting Iraqi’s initiation into the qualifying battle was not all he might have wished. He remained on the bench for the opening fourth round game, a 1-1 draw with Jordan, then came on for a scant 21 minutes in the subsequent 1-1 encounter with Oman. His first start came against Japan as part of an Iraqi line-up that saw a number of veterans sit out in favour of younger talent. The gamble failed to pay off, with the team losing 1-0, while Iraq’s fourth also ended in defeat, this time against Australia.
But things were set to improve. On November 14, Ahmed Hammadi scored his first international goal just four minutes from the end of Iraq’s clash with Jordan. Picking up the ball on the edge of the area, Ahmed had a quick look up before rifling his shot past keeper Amer Shafi for his side’s first win in round four.
“It was a crunch match for us,” the 5’6 striker explained. “A lot of planning and determination went into that win. Before the game I remember talking to the coach and promising him that if he put his faith in me I’d score, and that’s what I did. Of course, we didn’t win just because of me. All the guys played a part. They’ve got the ambition and the dream to take part in the next World Cup.”
If they are to realize that dream, however, Ahmed and his teammates will likely have to win their remaining three games. First up is Oman on June 4, followed by Japan on June 11 and Australia a week later on June 18. If they could somehow take three points from each of these encounters, a qualifying berth for Brazil would be theirs.
Ahmed refuses to be daunted by the challenge ahead. “As the group stands right now, Japan have more or less secured the top slot. The real competition is for the second qualifying position. We don’t shy away from tough tasks and are determined to get the results we need to take us to the World Cup.”
“The match against Oman is the big one,” he continued, “because if we beat them we’ll have eight points, leaving Australia a tough final away game against Japan. After that we face Japan in Doha, and I reckon they might be a bit relaxed, especially since they’re off to take part in the Confederations Cup immediately after the game. So with luck we’ll be able to get our three points before our final game against Australia. Another win there and we’ll have made it to Brazil.”
And while of the odds are stacked against them, if Hammadi Ahmed can make good on his word and help win these all-important clashes, hero status would surely await.