At the halfway point of the AFC Cup group stage, Iraq’s two representatives in the second tier of the Asian club competitions are experiencing vastly different fortunes. One, the Police club Al-Shurta, sits top of their group and the other, Arbil, is bottom after two defeats and look likely to struggle to qualify for the next stage after just three group games played – in a competition they reached the final of last season.
Who would’ve believed that four-time Iraqi league champions and two-time AFC Cup finalists Arbil– at this stage of the season – would be out of contention in Asia and look likely to miss out on one of the four places for the final stages of the seemingly never-ending Iraqi league championship (the club are currently in seventh place in their 10 team group, five points off the pace fourth-placed Al-Karkh).
How did this all happen? Well political turmoil and austerity in the region at the near end of last year (the Kurdistan Regional Government is reportedly in debt to the tune $15 billion and are paying wages of state officials with foreign loans) – forced the club to cancel the contracts of their best players, Iraq goalkeeper Jalal Hassan returned to Baghdad, top scorer Amjad Radhi is scoring for fun in the Saudi League, fan favourite Hawar Mulla Mohammed decided he wanted to play out his playing days with the club where he made his name Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, even the Spaniards Jorge Gotor and Víctor Ormazábal who helped guide the club to the AFC Cup final in Dubai last October have left.
However the club’s coach, one of Iraq’s best, the vocal Ayoub Odisho (who can often be heard berating his players on the sidelines), hasn’t jumped ship even though the Iraqi FA president and vice president of the Arbil club (whose membership has been frozen after he won the FA elections last May), offered the 54-year-old the opportunity to escape the madness at the Franso Harriri to manage the Iraqi side for the forthcoming World Cup qualifying campaign. But the coach who is never one to give up, has decided to stay put and attempt to stir the Yellow Citadel through the turbulent storm.
Last month they signed stars Younis Mahmoud and Nashat Akram on short-term contracts to play for the club. However their deals were variably different than the rest of the players they signed, with the two legends donning the yellow shirts in the AFC Cup only and not in the Iraqi league. However the big name signings haven’t proved fruitful for Ayoub Odisho or Arbil, with Nashat, clearly lacking match fitness, only making his first start in the recent defeat in Ashgabat, while the Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud has spent more time flying to and fro the Gulf after an administration error meant he wasn’t registered to play for the first two matches in the AFC Cup. The player stated that the mistake was rectified but he wasn’t on the plane flying out to Turkmenistan earlier this week.
After a last minute goal in Turkmenistan inflicted a third straight defeat in the AFC Cup for Arbil, former Iraqi captain and midfielder Nashat Akram told the Arab media that the players were “giving their all,” but with the team managing just one win in their last 12 league matches, giving their all may not be enough to qualify for the next stage. There are more difficult times ahead for Ayoub Odisho and Arbil.
The Other Iraqi Club
In complete contrast are one of Iraq’s inform teams Al-Shurta under Egyptian trainer Mohammed Youssef topping Group B and looking likely to reach the knock-out stages after their emphatic 6-2 win over Palestinian side Wad Alness, finally demonstrating the true potential of Al-Qithara on the Asian continent. The win in Doha is a timely reminder of what this club, which for the past two seasons has been the best side in the Iraqi league, is really capable, after unconvincing performances in their opening two matches against Al-Hidd and Al-Jazeera.
The club lost club captain Nashat Akram after he the club release when it became apparent that his father in-law, Ayad Benyan, the much beloved club president would be ousted by former Al-Shurta midfielder of the 80s and 90s, Riyadh Abdul-Abbas, after an baffling coup d’état led by former Iraq national coach Hakim Shaker against the man that had brought Al-Shurta their first league title in 15 years, only a couple of years after narrowly avoiding relegation from the top flight on goal difference.
However the loss of their club president and his legendary son-in-law haven’t affected the team’s results in the Iraqi league as they sit pretty on top of Group 2, still unbeaten, with an impressive nine wins from eleven matches so far this season, with their nearest rivals Al-Minaa having played two games more, 11 points behind the 2013 Iraqi league champions. Their aim like other Iraqi teams in the past is to make their mark in an Asian club competition – where no Iraqi club has never won any silverware.
This Iraqi team comes well-equipped. Al-Shurta is a club stacked with Iraqi internationals, currently there are 10 players in the Iraqi national side, with even their first team and reserve goalkeepers named in the recent squad for the friendly with DR Congo this month. A suggestion of how strong this team is, however dominance in the domestic league and achieving something in an Asian competition is two very different things, as former Iraqi champions Arbil demonstrate, the club were the dominant club in the Iraqi league for the past eight years but have failed to add the AFC Cup to their trophy cabinet. Amjad Kelaf, Alaa Abdul-Zahra and Marwan Hussein will have to do something special to help Al-Shurta become the first Iraqi club to lift the AFC Cup.