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Confederations Cup Preview: Iraq

A first-ever Confederations Cup is a more than welcome distraction for Iraq after a terrible year. It will also be a little painful.

Playing in the mini-tournament is always bitter-sweet for those teams that already know that they will not be returning to the host nation a year later. Out of all the eight nations, Iraq is the only one out of the running for World Cup qualification. That makes it all the more important.

When the Desert Foxes celebrated the famous Asian Cup triumph in July 2007, it united the nation in a way that hadn’t happened for years.

Consequently, the crash on the road to South Africa was devastating. Despite being placed in a tough group with Australia, China and Qatar – surely, everyone thought, the Asian champions would experience few problems.
 
It started badly and by the halfway stage, the team was almost dead and buried. A late rally gave them a fighting chance but it was too little too late.

Despite that huge setback, Iraq is a team not short of talent and now there is huge motivation to show the world that 2007 was no fluke.

How they got here: 2007 Asian Cup winners

It was a fairytale story. Few gave Iraq any chance at the start of the Asian Cup in the summer of 2007. A win over Australia in the group stage was fully deserved and then South Korea were defeated on penalties at the semi-final. Saudi Arabia, a team that had defeated Japan and was in great form, waited but Younis Mahmoud headed home a second half-winner. The country went crazy and the team made headlines around the world as finally Iraq had a feel-good story that everyone wanted to share.

Coach: Bora Milutinovic

You could hold a tournament just involving national teams that the Serbian has coached. Not only did he take Mexico, Costa Rica the United States and Nigeria to the second round of World Cups 86, 90, 94 and 98, he also guided China a first appearance on the global stage in 2002. Then he coached Honduras and Jamaica before landing the Iraq job in April. As experienced as they come, the 64 year-old’s energy and enthusiasm is just as important and while he doesn’t have much time to get to know his new charges, there are few who do tournaments better than Bora.

The team

For many of Iraq’s players, the Confederations Cup represents an ideal opportunity to put themselves in the European shop window. In the past players have been linked but contracts have never been inked.

Playmaker Nashat Akram came closest to a big move in 2008. The midfielder was one of the stars of the Asian Cup and agreed to join Manchester City last year. The UK’s strict work permit laws put paid to that idea.

Nashat lines up in the middle with the only Iraqi player to currently ply his trade in Europe. Hawar Mulla Mohammed not only plays there, he became the first Iraqi to score in the UEFA Champions League last season. The talented Kurd found the net for Cypriot club Anorthosis in their 3-3 draw against Greek giants Panathinaikos.

In attack, Younis Mahmoud is one of the best known strikers in Asia. It was widely expected that he would soon be on his way to a big European club. Marseille showed interest but the powerful forward is still playing for Qatari club Al-Gharaffa, along with Nashat.

Noor Sabri is a flamboyant and talented goalkeeper and guards the sticks behind a backline that is experienced and has been playing together for years.

Rising Star: Karrar Jassim

Just 22, the midfielder is becoming a key member of the Iraqi team. Strong and athletic, he likes to get forward as much as possible. His performances in the 2007 Asian Champions League earned him a move to Qatar. He is ambitious to move higher up the ladder and this competition could give him that chance.

Prospects

It won’t be easy to get out of the group. It is virtually a given that European champions Spain will end in first place. Much will depend on how Iraq fares against the hosts in the opening game. Defeat in Johannesburg will mean that the Desert Foxes will have to take something off Spain in the next match. But anything can happen on the big stage as Iraq demonstrated less than two years ago.

John Duerden, Goal.com