My thoughts on the sorry state of Iraqi football

I wanted to jot down my own musings on the sorry state of Iraqi football and the shambolic and backward steps Iraq has made, which has allowed the so-called minnows or lesser footballing nations on the Asian continent, who in fairness have worked academically and theoretically for several years to reach our level in Asia and surpass it. The truth about sports in Iraq, is that there is no planning for the future of sports in Iraq whether it comes from the Ministry of Youth, Iraqi FA or the Olympic Committee. Millions of dollars are being spent annually and results evidently and expectedly conclude in failure. There are no aims nor targets set and expectations and whether they reach those targets are hit and miss and based on luck. In almost 70 years, the stately and ostentatious name of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee (which it is, only a name) has worked tirelessly spending Iraq’s money to achieve and produce just a single medal at the Olympic Games!!! The Ministry of Youth spent millions on a Sports City and two stadiums in the city of Basra for the Gulf Cup which they did not host and yet still this facility has not been completed, and the 60,000 capacity stadium sits empty and unused!

A lot has led to this and while the prime instigator in the whole affair in football in Iraq are the Iraq Football Association and its predecessors, the constant calls for the resignation of the FA will not change anything. Whether the new Iraqi Football Association administration is led by the renowned and glorified football names of the past such as the likes of Falah Hassan or Hussein Saeed, it won’t change a thing. The core reason why Iraqi football and sports in general is lagging behind, is that successive administrations are set-up to fail, and honestly this is the best they can do in its current capacity with the people they have in place at the Football Association.

The Iraq FA is run by only a few individuals and departments and most of these figures are sportsmen and not innovators or modernisers and they live in a place that time forgot. Iraqi sports is stuck in the 30s and 40s, living a hand to mouth existence and dependent on the state for funds, at times begging for extra-funding once the people running a club or sports organisation notice that the funds handed to them by the Ministry of Youth would not cover their expenses. And this is without citing corruption or what you can call a mis-direction of funds.

You only need to have a look at the stadium and training facilities of the oldest football club in Iraq and see our sports administration in Iraq have failed to follow the progression of the rest of the world. Many of the names of Iraq’s football clubs denote the government institutions where they were founded and to this day, they continue to be dependent on these institutions for funding to pay the wages of players, its employees and the day to day running of its clubs and their dilapidated stadiums and out of date training facilities.

Iraqi sport and the Iraqi Football Association needs to be reformed and this will not come from demonstrations outside the Al-Shaab Stadium or the streets of Baghdad or even a million loud and vocal demonstrators outside the headquarters of the Iraqi Football Association, the change has to come from within. The whole set-up of the Iraqi Football Association needs a complete reformation, no longer can people with only a background in football and a diploma in Physical Education lead and guide football in Iraq and make plans for the future, because for the past thirteen years we have waited for a person to guide Iraqi football and each time, a new sportsmen takes charge as FA president expectations are high at the start but the results all end the same.

Whether we like it or not, football is seen as a business in the world, it is a business and to be able to advance there has to be investment because football in Iraq cannot live this hand to mouth existence if it wants to even ponder thinking about qualifying for successive World Cups or challenging the likes of Iran, South Korea, Japan or Australia.

Look at the set-up of other football associations around the world and compare them to Iraq. Where in the world does the president of a football association get himself involved in the selection of a national squad? There needs to be a separation from technical and administrative matters in football, currently a former player and football coach in his role as the team manager is the person asked to process visas and buy plane tickets and organise bookings for a team’s hotel. This ex-player one of only 22 Iraqi footballers who played in a World Cup finals, his expertise and knowledge should be put to better use. As protesters in Baghdad, every Friday scream at the people in-charge in the Green Zone demanding a more technocratic government, Iraqi football fans should demand the same from the Iraqi Football Association. Only then will there be planning and improvement (and at least some form of progression) in football in Iraq.

The decision making within the Iraq FA is based purely on personal outlooks or rash impulses rather evaluated and dedicated planning. The function of committees within the Iraq FA has proved to be an impotent process and a complete failure, structured simply to give light entertainment to onlookers like a poorly constructed Turkish soap opera. The Iraqi media and sports fans should demand a revolution in organisation in football in Iraq, a separation of technical and administrative matters in football and sports and employing a more technocratic system. A football association should function as if it is a miniature government and while it was voted in democratically, it is currently run and ruled on the personal whims of one person, with two in-warring cliques on either side of the FA president. These people do not have any visions of how to progress football in Iraq nor do they even have any idea of how to lead Iraqi football for the better in the future.

You can change the FA president a million times, the fact is, the feeble system being held in place is set-up to manage Iraqi football on an hourly basis, it cannot plan for the next day, let alone next month, next year or the next decade. Iraq football mirrors its society and that change can only come from within. Replacing the President while those shaky and fragile foundations stay the same will see Iraqi football end up with the same miserable results.


Preview: Iraq v Thailand

Iraq go into the first match of their World Cup qualifying round double header knowing they need a victory over Kiatisuk Senamuang’s Thailand at the PAS Ghavamin Stadium in Tehran to stand any hope of leapfrogging the current leaders and topping Group F.

Thailand currently top Group F with 13 points from five games. Iraq are second with 8 points, having played a game less and need maximum points in their final group matches to qualify as group leaders ahead of Changsuk (“The War Elephants”).

Iraq’s coach Yahya Alwan, who managed the side during their disastrous 1998 World Cup campaign where he was sacked and sent to the notorious Radwaniya prison on the orders of Uday, the son of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, lost the services of two of his key players for the vital qualifier through injury

A day before Swedish-based winger Ahmed Yasin was expected to set to fly off to Tehran, the player pulled a hamstring in his club AIK Solna’s pre-season training match with Gefle IF and has been ruled out for 7 to 10 days, meaning he would miss both of Iraq’s final group matches.

The 11th hour injury is a blow to Iraq’s preparations after Yahya Alwan lost midfield mainstay Yaser Kasim a few weeks prior after he picked up a long-term knee injury in an outing in England’s League One for Swindon Town.

In Kasim’s absence come Olympic player Amjad Atwan, who made his international debut in Iraq’s solitary warm-up game with Syria on Friday and Osama Rashid of Farense in Portugal’s Segunda Liga. The pair will battle it out for a place in midfield alongside Iraq’s most experienced player in the centre, Saad Abdul-Amir of Saudi club Al-Qadisiya.

Osama Rashid, with 15 appearances for Iraq, last played for the team at the 2015 semi-finals in the downpour in Sydney, where the Lions of Mesopotamia were beaten 2-0 by South Korea. The midfielder has been recalled to the side after an impressive season with Farense, where he has been a first team regular and is currently the club’s top scorer with 7 goals, with two of those coming in his club’s last game, a 3-0 win over Leixões SC.

Iraq will be led by their team captain, veteran Younis Mahmoud, who despite being Iraq’s top scorer in their qualifying matches, with four goals in four games, was a direct target of disgruntled fans at the PAS stadium last Friday repeatedly chanting for the Iraqi coach to substitute him after another lacklustre performance in an Iraqi jersey.

Younis, who turned 37 last month, responded to the criticism after the 1-0 defeat by stating that if he listened to everything the media and fans had previously said about, he would have retired years ago. Another member of the 2007 Asian Cup winning team, goalkeeper Nour Sabri will start in goal and will make his 99th international appearance against Thailand.

Ali Adnan of Serie A club Udinese was one of the last players to link-up with the Iraqi squad at their team headquarters in Tehran and will start on the left side of midfield, partnered by left back Dhargham Ismail, of Turkish Süper Lig side Çaykur Rizespor.

Iraq have not beaten Group F leaders Thailand in fifteen years, with their last victory coming during a 2002 World Cup qualifying match held in Baghdad, which Iraq won 4-0.

Last September these two nations played out a thrilling 2-2 draw in Bangkok, which witnessed the Thais, 2-0 down and with ten minutes left, score two quick goals in the space of three minutes to salvage a crucial point against their Group F rivals.