In the mid-Seventies the Minister of Youth regimentally instructed the Iraqi Football Association to obtain favourable results at the AFC U-19 Championship in Tehran by any means. It was a direct political decision, one that was used to display and portray advancement of youth sports under the Baathist regime. However this was to change the vision and grass roots of Iraqi youth football for many years and the legacy of the Youth Minister’s decree remains to this day. Iraqi youth football was no longer seen to develop and cultivate the players of the future, but it was to primarily to win Batolat (“Championships”) and a win for the youth team was a victory for the people in power and the Baath Party. And this hasn’t changed even though the Baath Party is no longer in power.
The decision was made by politicians not football academics or strategists, their only purpose was to win, not thinking of creating young stars of the future nor giving them a platform to launch their careers. The main development of Iraqi players was made at Shaabiya or Youth Centres, or even the Ishbal systems where it was difficult for the FA to include players over the age of 15 or 16. So the main aim was to fabricate achievements at youth level to embellish the advancements of the Baath youth sports program. But when the Baathist regime fell, this baton was picked up by Iraq Football Association and they continued to run with it.
When the Iraq Under 20 team reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World U-20 Cup in Turkey last year, the Iraq FA officials and the coaching staff and the players took the plaudits and adulation from the fans. But was their ‘victories’ a true reflection of youth football in Iraq, are the shabab of Iraq as good, or even better than the Under 20s of England, Paraguay and Chile?
Youth football in Iraq was once upon a time used to nurture the young players, in the era of the legendary figures of Georges Elias at the old Railway side Sikak Al-Hadeed, Mohammed Najib Kaban at Aliyat Al-Shurta, Abdul-Rahman Al-Qaisi at Al-Bareed, and Younis Hussein at the now defunct Omma Club use to scout their players from the local neighbourhood teams, and enrol them into their team’s youth sides before eventually promoting them to the first team. The talents of the likes of Sattar Khalaf, Ali Kadhim and Falah Hassan, three legendary players in the national team’s history. their early playing careers were developed this way.
But with the Iraq FA youth systems, a 23 or 24 year-old player with at least three or four years experience in the Iraqi first division was handed a new passport and a new date of birth to play in these prestigious AFC Youth Championship. The only aim of these competitions was to win, not to develop or gain experience (because these players already had many years of first team experience), and anything but a victory was classed a failure. Now this is no way to train or educate youth players, a 19 or 20 year-old footballer is not at the same physical nor footballing development as a 23 or 24 year footballer. There is a difference from playing a team of under 17s and a team of Under 19s, each team is at a different stage of development. The Iraqi Shabab team was more or less seen as a nursery team for the senior side, if the Under 19s (which included some players who were 26 years of age!) were successful, players would be rushed into the national team squad, sometimes at mass. Nowhere in world football can players make the jump up from playing under 19s football to playing full international football so quickly.
However this fraud was always hidden from the public by the ruling regime and the football authorities. It was a different time, when the state controlled everything in the country, and the state controlled media never uttered a word about Tazweer even when a player would give his age in an interview and it was obvious that he wouldn’t have been eligible to play for the Iraqi Shabab side.
For the Iraq FA, the media and the fans, Ishbal (U-14), Nasheen (U-17), Shabab (U-19) or Olympi (U-23), are all the same, they’ve never been formed for the development or education of an Iraqi player but to win championships. And this is by any means, so a coach wants a player but he’s too old to participate in his age group, well in Iraq there are ways around this, as anywhere in the world money talks and a player can alter his age to make himself a couple or even four or five years younger than he actually is.
I’ve been outspoken about this issue before and I’ve been called unpatriotic for speaking publicly about it, that word eeeb (shameful) is branded around often and even national traitor (to try and quieten someone ) but the time is for change. I still find it hard to grasp or understand how people continue to believe in our super-human youth footballers who are able to beat the youth teams of Japan, Australia, South Korea, Chile, Egypt and a host of other nations, but when the Iraqi side come up against these nations at senior level or any decent football nation they can’t compete. When did Iraq last beat any of the top Asian footballing nations? Iraq finished in last place in their World Cup group and just squeezed into the 2015 Asian Cup, with two wins over Indonesia and a final match day victory over China.
Al-Shurta club president Ayad Benyan even went on national tv and spoke about the tazweer in the Iraqi team and FA official Ali Jabar walked off the show claiming that the Iraqi U-20 players were “checked and tested” by FIFA. What are these tests that Ali Jabar speaks of? When FIFA doesn’t conduct age tests on U-20 players, only on U-17 players.
There’s a history behind the Tazweer this isn’t something that has cropped up spontaneously, it was strategic process used in tandem with the Ministry of Youth and the Iraq FA, and today the officials in the Iraq FA work and administer this procedure, but will it change? The plain answer is no. If people continue to stand aside and allow them to work as they do, they won’t change, it’s keeping officials in their karasi or chairs in the Iraq FA.
Let’s be honest and speak truthfully, every one of Iraq’s U-19 side from 1975 has featured overage players, and this doesn’t include one or two players but more than half the side, for example the victorious 1988 team in Doha didn’t include one single eligible player and this was confirmed by the Ministry of Youth early this year when they issued identification cards for current and ex-players. It was revealed that Mahdi Karim, currently at the Asian Games in Incheon, was actually born in 1977 and not 1983 which meant he wouldn’t have been able to represent the Iraq U-23 side at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens but it wasn’t only Mahdi Karim that had modified his own age but goalkeeper Nour Sabri who was born in 1980, Emad Mohammed, Basim Abbas, Uday Talib, Ahmed Salah, Ahmed Manajid, Haidar Abdul-Razzaq and Haidar Abdul-Amir, they were all ineligible to play in the Under 23. Incidentally Saad Attiya, the youngest member of the squad in Athens at 17 years, with the year 1987 noted as his date of birth in his passport, was actually born in 1985. There have even been rumours of Younis Mahmoud, Nashat Akram, Qusai Munir and Salih Sadir doctoring their official DOBs. That’s almost all of the 15 players in the Athens Olympic squad, with the three overaged members, Razzaq Farhan, Abdul-Wahab Abu Al-Hail and Haidar Jabar.
Name a former or current player from the Iraqi national team and I guarantee he has doctored and forged documents to make himself younger, and this is not me talking, the much acclaimed Al-Iraqiya Al-Riyadhi program the Makhfi (Hidden) Show presented by Husham Mohammed, where each Friday he interviews and asks questions about what was hidden in a player’s career, whether it’s punishments from Uday, time in prison, clashes with coaches or players and tazweer and Naiem Saddam, Riyadh Abdul-Abbas and Habib Jafar, to name just three have been open about the procedure, though they claim they only shorten their own ages by a year however how Naiem Saddam played for the Iraqi Under 20s at the 1989 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia when he altered his age by only a year, he was born in 1966 so by shortening his age by a year to 1967, he wouldn’t have been eligible to play at the 1988 AFC Championship nor the 1989 FIFA U-20 World Cup. One year or two or even three, there’s no difference.
I hear people defend Tazweer by claiming that other nations also participate in forging dates of births. But this is no defence, so just because you see someone or your neighbour commit a crime, doesn’t make it right to commit the same crime? Iraqi football is caught between these two warring factions, one that wants to continue in this backward procedure to continue with the victories “to make the Iraqi fans happy” (this is actually one of their arguments) and others that want to advance and challenge the best nations in Asia and reach World Cup finals and win Asian Cups at senior level. But how can Iraq do this when a player at 27 years of age is at a lower level of development and more suited to playing Under 20 players than senior seasoned internationals, and by the time he has managed to get to that desired level, the player is past his best. This is the scenario Iraqi football faces. The Iraqi youth side are head and shoulders of many teams at youth level because their older but what if they played teams their own age? Would they play as well?
Do the best teams in Asia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran engage in these unethical methods in youth football? No, so why does Iraq continue to use and play overage players?
It’s funny that some believe that an Iraqi player can play in the first team of one of the nation’s top clubs at 13! or actually believe a player can be born in 1993 when his father passed away in 1990, or how one player can change his second name with no one knowing or even asking why? I hear people talk of the reputation of the country and speaking out against Tazweer as some how ruining the name of our great Iraq. No, it’s not the people speaking out that are harming the reputation of Iraq.
The Iraqi coach Hakim Shaker looks likely to add the U-23 Asian Games to the AFC U-22 Championship he won earlier this year and will be rewarded with a new three-year contract worth $350,000 US a year, and this comes on the back of his results in the youth teams. His results with the senior side have been mediocre at best, and in Jakarta, Iraqi fans were astounded to hear on the lips of the coach that beating Indonesia was considered “an achievement”. The only result of merit he has managed against any of the top Asian sides in two years was a 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia at the Gulf Cup in Manama on the Iraqi team’s run to the final. But I want to make it clear, the khelal or fault is not with Hakim Shaker or any of the players but the whole rotten system, one that fabricates results, when in truth a team of Iraqi players ranging from the ages of 22 to 25 are beating youth teams who are 18-19 years of age. This doesn’t aid a player’s progress, as what does a 25-year old footballer gain or achieve by beating players who are five or six years younger than himself. Youth football is about development of young players however Iraqi youth football has lost its way.
Ask who benefits? Is it Iraqi football or the people trying to manufacture results at youth level to keep their positions at the top of the Iraqi Football Association?
It has become indefensible, a destructive force in the our national game which until people see how it effects the local game, will see people continue to walk in circles, making the same mistakes and looking at other nations getting ahead of them on the football field.