What’s it like for a European to work in Iraq? We sat down with Marin Ion to find out

Marin Ion became one of few Europeans working in Iraqi sports when he took charge of Zakho in 2015. Ion has a very long history with football, and his story with the beautiful game started all the way back in 1970.

“My journey with football started when I was 15 years old when I joined the youth side of Dinamo Bucuresti. Three years later, I was promoted to the senior team. I won the Romanian championship 5 times and the Romanian Cup twice. I played in the Champions League semifinals against Liverpool who went on to win the Champions League that year. My preferred position was central midfield, but I played most of my career in central defender.”

Growing up in Soviet Romania, Ion was spoiled for choice when it came to quality central players.

“When I was a teenager, I admired Franz Beckenbauer. His style of play was revolutionary and he inspired me to make the switch to a defender. Later on, I became a huge fan of Ian Rush, whose brace in 1984 knocked us out from the Champions League semi-final.”

Ion was part of one of the greatest Romanian sides of all time, winning five league titles in ten years with Dinamo Bucureşti. We asked him why he thought the team was so dominant, and how it felt to be an important part of that legendary period.

“We had a team made up of players that were raised supporting Dinamo Club. We all loved and respected the club that formed us. The performances were the result of the work and discipline that all players showed, these factors formed our characters and made us one of the most successful teams ever.”

Having come from a country of very rich footballing history, Ion sees a number of similarities with Iraqi football.

“Unfortunately, in Romania, soccer is suffering a regression caused by the lack of investors. However, just like in Iraq, the country continues to produce talented players, and the league is always tense.”

The Romanian has managed a dozen teams in a career that has spanned over 25 years, winning several championships in the process.

“I worked for four years at Ploiesti where I formed a competitive team, with whom I won the Romanian Cup. The two years I spent at Al-Kuwait Club represented a period of top sporting performance (winning two AFC Cups and the 2013 league championship where I was chosen as the best coach in Kuwait). When it comes to the Middle East, the best performances I’ve had were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but I’ve had the satisfaction of putting my technical and tactical footprint on all the teams I have trained.”

Most Europeans would not even consider an offer from Iraq due to the unfortunate image that it has abroad, as was the case when Zakho tried to hire former Chelsea and Juventus striker Adrian Mutu. However, Ion spent time at two Iraqi clubs, Zakho and Al-Minaa, and has very fond memories of his time in the country.

“The suggestion to work in Iraq was a challenge I accepted with great confidence and my main concern was to get results. I spent almost two years in Iraq in which I adapted very well and made a number of friends. I enjoyed living in both cities and I was able to do my work quietly. However, I notice that unlike Zakho, Basra had a higher economic potential, and could become a very advanced city if managed right. I never understood people’s fear of Iraq because I did not have a problem from this point of view.”

During his time in Iraq, Ion managed some of the brightest players and played against the best teams in the region.

“At the time that I worked in Iraq, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya was always one of the toughest teams to face. Personally, I was impressed by Ammar Abdul-Hussein when I coached Al-Minaa. I consider him the best player that I coached in Iraq.”

FIFA recently lifted the ban on Iraqi stadia to host international matches, however, the Romanian manager believes that there is still work to be done.

“Yes, I think that Iraq is ready to host competitive matches, except in the pitches. They are not maintained well enough to play quality and fluid football. It would require more investments to bring them to the required level.”

Since leaving Al-Minaa halfway through last season, Marin Ion has been in Germany where he underwent a minor surgery.

“I want to get back on the bench and resume coaching, starting with next season. I still want to win more championships.”

A special thanks to Emanuel Roşu, who helped in translating this piece. To learn more about Romanian football, follow Emanuel on Twitter, @Emishor.