In November of 2019, the Iraq national team defeated rivals Iran in a thrilling qualifying match, followed by an upset win away to Asian champions Qatar at the Gulf Cup and a dominant victory over the UAE. Optimism was high among Iraqi fans and there was hope that our national team was heading in the right direction towards Qatar 2022.
Fast forward two years, and Iraq sit fifth in their qualifying group without a win in four games and with only two goals to show for. Today, we ask the question: where has it gone wrong for our national team? And can we still qualify for the World Cup?
Iraq’s goalless draw with South Korea was met with praise from fans thanks to our stellar defensive performance. But despite the positivity, doubts lingered in the back of the mind about our attack in that match as Iraq barely created a chance, and it has now proven to be a major problem. There is a real lack of attacking ideas in the current Iraqi team as players are slow to move and create space, and it often feels like they are simply watching and hoping that a Bashar Resan or a Mohammed Qasim can create something from nothing. Gone are the days when Iraq looked threatening from crosses, and while Aymen Hussein and Alaa Abdul-Zahra have been prolific in the Iraqi League, neither player thus far has shown the movement or pace to be able to trouble the best defences in Asia.
Iraq’s squad selections have been a major subject of controversy in recent weeks. Players who have been out of action for months continue to feature regularly in the starting XI, while talented players from the local league such as Mohammed Jaffal and Karrar Nabeel are overlooked in favour of mainstays in the team. Furthermore, after Amir Al-Ammari’s impressive performances, fans are eager to see if the likes of Jiloan Hamad can make a similar impact as he has not been given a real opportunity despite becoming eligible for Iraq two years ago. IFA president Adnan Dirjal has promised changes in the coming months but only time will tell if any action is taken.
Iraq have been plagued with injuries as of late, the most notable of which being Mohanad Ali “Mimi” who is out for six months. Mimi was one of the main reasons for Iraq reaching this round, with his work rate, non-stop movement and ability to create chances from nothing proving valuable to our attack. Alaa Abbas, who scored the winner against Iran back in 2019, has also been injured and his aerial ability and clinical finishing have been sorely missed. At the back, Saad Natiq and Rebin Sulaka have both been injured and Dhurgham Ismail also picked up a knock, which has been particularly unlucky as fans have been crying out for a left back to challenge the off-form Ali Adnan.
Change of coach
The decision to replace Srečko Katanec with Dick Advocaat just weeks before the start of the qualifiers was a hugely risky move and so far it has not paid off. Katanec had a strong knowledge of Iraq’s local talent having attended league games regularly and he had a clear system and style of play with the 5-at-the-back formation, whereas Advocaat came into the role with no knowledge of Iraqi football. Advocaat has used a different formation in each of Iraq’s four matches so far and he seems to be giving chances to new players on a whim after watching them on TV or being recommended them by his assistants. His substitutions have also been puzzling, giving Iraq’s most creative players in Mohammed Qasim and Amir Al-Ammari barely any time to change the game. Serious questions must be asked of those who made this decision as Iraq now have no visible style of play and it feels like three years of solid preparation under Katanec have been wasted.
A problem that just won’t go away. Fans have waited for years to see Iraq play a final round qualifying match in Basra in front of our supporters but yet again Iraq were forced by FIFA to play in a neutral venue due to the ban that was put in place after the protests in 2019. Iraq versus Iran in front of thousands of passionate fans in Basra quickly became Iraq versus Iran in an empty stadium in Doha and it really showed as the team couldn’t seem to muster any form of motivation throughout the game. FIFA are expected to allow us to play our remaining home games in Basra, awaiting official confirmation, but with five points dropped at home already, it may be too little, too late for our national team.
Can Iraq still qualify for the World Cup?
Despite our poor start to these qualifiers, third place in the group remains within reach. If the next matchday goes as many would expect, with Iraq beating Syria, Iran beating Lebanon and South Korea beating UAE, Iraq will be in third place in the group at the halfway point of the final round, and therefore there would be no reason to suggest that we couldn’t finish third by the end. However, finishing third would then require us to play (most likely) one of Japan, Saudi Arabia or Australia in a play-off, and even if we were to advance past that, we would then need to play two legs against a team from another continent. Safe to say, qualification looks unlikely for Iraq, but if we can grab that third place spot, who knows… stranger things have happened in football!
Iraq’s next matches in the Asian Qualifiers are against Syria on 11 November and South Korea on 16 November. Make sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to stay updated on all things Lions of Mesopotamia!