In 2004, the footballing world stood and took notice of Iraq as they participated in their fourth Olympic games. Entering the competition as real underdogs the Lions were expected to be knocked out early in the group stage due to failure of making a mark internationally. As well as not reaching a global tournament since the late eighties (World Cup 1986 & Olympic Games 1988), Iraq’s Olympic track record was not the prettiest either. One medal – Bronze, weightlifting in Rome 1960. However Athens 2004 really did put Iraq on the map as an odd defying campaign saw Adnan Hamad’s men inches away from an astonishing Olympic final. A defeat to Paraguay in the semis ended all hopes but convincingly cemented Usood Al-Rafidain’s place on the big stage.
Road to Rio
Fast forward to 2016 and Iraq’s Olympic team became favourites to take one of three qualifying spots to the summer games in Brazil. Iraq were predicted qualification for purely one reason – being the defending champions. Having said that, it was not all plain sailing for the Lions as the side suffered some big losses. Udinese’s Ali Adnan, Rizespor’s Dhurgham Ismail, and Ängelholms’ Rebin Asaad could not attend the tournament in Qatar due to club commitments. One man trusted to lead the line was Grasshopper Zurich striker Sherko Kareem. Kareem lit up the U-17 World Cup in 2013 which subsequently earned him a move to Switzerland from his boyhood club Al-Shorta. Although training in Doha with the squad, the striker was sent back on a plane before a game had even kicked off. Club Zurich had recalled his services. With preparation not going exactly to plan team selection wise, the side had a secret weapon. His name was Abdul Ghani-Shahad. This was the man who was responsible for gaining Naft Al-Wasat promotion to the Iraqi Premier League and winning them the title in their first season of top flight football. A simply sensational achievement. Shahad was roped in to lift the young squad and help achieve them qualification to a fifth Olympic tournament. Unbeaten in nine games prior to the championships, the U-23 manager was off to a flyer.
Beginning at Qatar SC’s stadium, Iraq kicked off the championship in Doha facing minnows Yemen. A penalty converted by Ali Faez and a rebound finish from Ali Husny ended the game with a 2-0 win. Although not the most promising of performances, Iraq got the much needed three points ahead of a tough test against the Uzbeks. The next game was against an organised Uzbekistan side. A defensive mistake punished by Dostonbek Khamdamov put the White Wolvesahead in under a minute but some neat work from Husny set up goals for Amjad Atwan and Mahdi Kamel to give Iraq the lead going into the break. A dominant second half performance from Uzbekistan was rewarded when Timur Khakimov’s powerful header brought the game back level. However, in the final ten minutes of the match Iraq’s Humam Tariq remained calm before rounding the keeper and sealing qualification to the championships’ quarter-final. The last remaining group game took place at the Grand Hamad stadium. Up against one of the biggest teams in Asia, that being South Korea, one thing was on offer – a top spot finish. South Korea, who had also ensured qualification, took the lead early on after a Kim Huyn header found the back of the net in the first half. Then with seconds remaining with Shahad’s undefeated run looking like it was ending, Amjad Atwan earned the Lions a 1-1 draw extending the sides unbeaten run to 12 games. Iraq finished second on goal difference which set them up for an all Arab quarter-final against the UAE.
Two wins away from Brazil, Shahad’s U-23 side were getting closer to their ultimate goal. Though there was another big hurdle in the way. United Arab Emirates. It was without a doubt an even match up but the Usood Al-Rafiadinwere still favourites as nine players in the starting line-up that day had made national team appearances. The tie remained at deadlock going into the break with Abdullah Mesfer the happier of the managers following an impressive Emirati display. In the 75th minute they got their just rewards as Alaa Ali hit the ball in his own net to give UAE the advantage. Ali Husny, one of the tournament’s most influential players, came to the rescue once again as his equaliser three minutes later ruled out the freak moment which could have cost Iraq dearly. To progress to the next round both teams needed a moment of inspiration. It soon followed. A tactical masterpiece by Abdul Ghani-Shahad saw Humam Tariq switch as an unorthodox full-back and Bashar Resan was introduced to give a more attacking edge. This all whilst keeping the fittest and most pressing players on the pitch. It was counter attacking football simply at it’s best. The game finished a draw and the sides entered extra-time. Or should I say, Gonzalo Rodriguez time. A dominant start to the extra proved effective as Mohannad Abdul-Raheem opened his account at the most crucial of moments. The last 15 saw Iraq continue with the high pressing and it was Atwan who added the third which sent the Lions through to the last four of the U-23 Asian Cup.