A Bright Future for Iraqi Football
As the FIFA Under-20 World Cup came to a close, Iraq surprisingly emerged as one of the brightest in the tournament, despite France’s victory in the final. After a string of sensational results, the young Mesopotamian Lions, led by Hakeem Shaker, finished 4th place, an unexpected feat. Iraq initially qualified for this tournament by finishing as runner up in last year’s AFC U-19 Championship, which they lost on penalties to South Korea. From then on, Iraq had developed into a far better team, as they proved in the U-20 World Cup.
Iraq was placed in group E alongside Chile, England, and Egypt. In the first match, the young Iraqis fell behind 2-0 to England by the start of the second half, only to pull off a remarkable comeback in the last 15 minutes to draw 2-2. Iraq then faced fellow Arab nation Egypt, whom they defeated 2-1 after another comeback. To add more gloss to their results, Iraq defeated Chile 2-1 in the final group match to top the group and hence qualify for the next round.
Iraq faced Paraguay in the Round of 16, where it took an extra-time winner from Farhan Shakor to win the game. Their next opponents were South Korea, the very team who had defeated them at the AFC Championship final the previous year. In what was one of the entertaining matches of the tournament, the Iraqis took the lead three times only for the Koreans to equalize each time (the last of which came in the 120th minute, the last minute of extra time), resulting in a 3-3 score-line. However, the Middle Easterners would have their revenge in the subsequent penalty shootout, where they won 5-4. In the semi-final, Iraq faced a South American team for the third time in the competition: Uruguay. Iraq had led through a brilliant Ali Adnan freekick, but the Uruguayans leveled the score three minutes before the end, to the agony of the young Iraqis. To add more pain to that late goal conceded, Iraq’s U-20 World Cup journey ended with a 7-6 penalty shootout loss. The third place match seemed less significant to Iraq, as they were humbled 3-0 at the hands of Ghana.
Iraq may not have bagged any silverware, but they have certainly gained their supporters’, and the neutrals’, hearts. The Iraqi first team seems to have a bright future as they have a talented group of youth players at their disposal. Iraq’s U-20 heroes proved that they could beat any team, and that could be the first step in re-establishing Iraq’s dominance in Asia. With fledging players such as Ali Adnan, Farhan Shakor, Mohammed Hameed, and others, reclaiming the Asian Cup (which Iraq won in 2007) and other trophies may no longer be a dream. The fact that Iraq was the best Asian team at the U-20 World Cup is a good omen. Perhaps with more funding and better training facilities, Iraqi football could reach unprecedented heights.
By: Meriwan Rashid