Iraqi coach Akram Ahmed Salman stands on the side-lines at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai as the anthems are played, his team – dressed in all-white – line-up together and prepare to sing Mawtini. At 69 years, he’s the eldest man to manage the Iraqi team, but Akram hasn’t shown any desire to slow down in his advanced age, throughout the game, he’s up on his feet in his classic pose with his hands behind his back sternly looking at the field, screaming or shouting out the players’ first names to correct their positioning or directing them to where he wants the ball to be played. It’s as if the veteran is mentally kicking every ball on the pitch in his own head. It’s a characteristic that cannot go unnoticed, obsessive to the extent that he wants whatever control he can over every slight or minuscule detail.
For Akram, he has seen it all before, the players he had sent out to play in his first game in charge against DR Congo, are the fourth generation of footballers he has trained at international level. He has managed the greats of Iraqi football, from the Fox Falah Hassan, the national team’s record goalscorer Hussein Saeed to Ahmed Radhi, the only Iraqi to score at a World Cup finals.
Akram Salman has had a successful career as a coach but his next assignment if he manages to achieve it, would outweigh any of the medals or trophies he has picked up in his 45-year coaching profession – and that is to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals. But while Akram Salman has tasted an assortment of triumphs in football, it has always come hand in hand with sprinkling of trouble and tribulation.
And unsurprisingly his vetted appointment by the Iraq FA president as the replacement for Radhi Shanaishel, the man that had led Iraq to fourth at the 2015 Asian Cup at the turn of the year, didn’t come without its complications as his first training camp saw him reprimand three players for various forms of indiscipline as he saw it. It was like the coach had never been away.
Salman was appointed under the title of Technical Director by the Iraq FA – as he doesn’t hold a coaching ‘A’ certificate however the esteemed trainer has been allowed to sit on the bench as the AFC’s Technical Division recognised his qualifications to be equal to an ‘A’ level coach. This was a matter of contention for some officials of the FA after they quarreled over replacing him only hours after he was named coach!
Akram Salman – The Technical Director
Akram Ahmed Salman is a coach that simply splits opinion, and his appointment on the urging and full support of the Iraqi FA’s president, almost witnessed a complete revolt within the Iraqi Football Association. The trainer had been nominated by the FA’s Technical and Team Committees and from the moment his name reached the table, FA president Abdul-Khaliq Masoud made it clear that Akram was the only man he wanted to replace departing Radhi Shanaishel who excused himself from the role because of his current contract with QSL club Qatar SC, citing that it was impossible for him to concentrate on Iraq’s World Cup qualifying preparations in June while working full-time as a trainer at his Qatari club.
The meeting that was meant to discuss the nominations turned into Akram’s ascension to the national job in the absence of key officials, who voiced their disapproval to what they saw as a unilateral move by the FA president. Akram went on Iraqi State television and admitted he had been contacted by Abdul-Khaliq Masoud known as Al-Mullah, a couple of days before the meeting. It seemed that everything had been premeditated by the FA president.
There wasn’t only opposition from within the FA but also from the media and the fans, they hadn’t forgotten the coach’s last stint with the national side. Public pressure was so fierce that Akram Salman felt he had to come out to the media to declare that people were trying to foil his job before he had even taken charge. The FA officials lobbied Al-Mullah demanding a new vote to decide whether Akram should manage the team, but after a re-run vote, the FA president got what he wanted – Akram Salman was officially confirmed as the team’s new coach.
The past that will not die
Two recent events that will always be synonymously linked to Akram Salman came in the trainer’s previous spell ten years ago. The first of these incidents, what can only be termed as ‘the Singapore Brawl,’ looked almost to have ended his tenure. Muhammad Ali’s 1975 Heavyweight Championship victory over Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manilla is a legendary bout – but another fight in the same part of the world, the brawl in Singapore, kind of reads as a mythological story to the Iraqi jamhour– primarily for the reason that the whole tale has never been fully narrated by the protagonists involved.
It begins with the much-maligned Younis Mahmoud being appointed Iraq captain – traditionally in the Iraqi national side and many other football sides, the longest serving or most experienced member of the team would be named captain – but Mahmoud, not the eldest nor a long-serving player on the national side was unexpectedly handed the captaincy – ahead of Haidar Abdul-Razzaq, Hawar Mulla Mohammed and Nashat Akram. There has been some inconsistency over who actually named Mahmoud captain, the coach insists that it was he that made the decision to give him added responsibility on his immature shoulders, others allege the appointment was directed from above i.e. then FA president Hussein Saeed, while some key players insist that it was they as a group along with the FA that handed the now fabled striker the captaincy. What is known about the events leading up to Iraq’s embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Singapore, was that prior to the Asian Cup qualifier there were clashes were several players over the issue of the captaincy, at both the team hotel and in the dressing room. Two players were expelled from the team after the incident, but that was only after Iraq lost to Singapore, in what can be considered as one of Iraq’s most humiliating defeats of the past 40 years. The loss had been the third consecutive defeat of 2006.
At the time, Akram’s job was in danger, and if he had lost the next game the Iraq FA had been expected to wield the axe. The seemingly splintering national selection then produced one of the best performances under him. With a limited group of players – after he ejected four first team players for a mixture of indiscipline and inadequate form – the trainer decided to change the team’s formation to a more rigid 4-5-1 and beat China 2-1 in Dubai in a unified team performance that was duplicated at the Asian Cup Final that following year. The win over China ultimately saved the coach’s job, well, kept him in his position for a while longer at least. But he wouldn’t survive the next scandal.
The 17TH Gulf Cup Scandal
One incident that has marred the coach’s fragile relationship with a section of the fans and the media and besmirched his own reputation, were the events that led up to the Gulf Cup tie with Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi in 2007. It’s another murky episode that after eight years continues to have legs, the testimonies of Salih Sadir and Hawar Mulla Mohammed to Waar Sport TV show Siri wa Al-Shakhsi recently reinforcing what was said by 2007 Iraqi captain Ahmed Kadhim, Razzaq Farhan and Emad Mohammed to be true, that the FA president Hussein Saeed and the head of the Saudi delegation at the 17th Gulf Cup had agreed for the final group game between the two nations to end in a draw so both teams would advance to the semi-finals! Salih Sadir claimed that Saudi centre back Hamad Al-Montashari told him to be patient as Iraq searched for an equaliser, telling him that they would give them opportunities to score after Iraq had conceded an early penalty. Then with time running out the Saudi defender made the outburst to Salih and his team-mates “Come on, tell me when are you going to score?”
Iraq lost 1-0 and after the final whistle, Ahmed, Razzaq, Emad and Nour Sabri went onto a number of Iraqi TV channels revealing that the Iraq FA’s ‘agreement’ with their Saudi counterparts. The allegations caused a storm in Iraqi football circles that even the Iraqi Prime Minister called for an investigation into the matter. After looking into accusations, the Iraq FA stated that there had been “a misunderstanding” between the coach and the players during the pre-match team talk, and the investigative committee recommended that Akram Salman be relieved of his duties while Ahmed, Razzaq and Emad were suspended from international football for two years. The fourth player, goalkeeper Nour Sabri, had been silenced after his earlier revelations, reportedly after pressure from other players and officials and avoided any sanctions.
The only player still on the team from that era, is Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud, who will play some part of Akram’s early plan, but there’s the bigger question whether he’ll be playing football by the time the 2018 World Cup in Russia comes around. The new coach has spoken frankly on Iraqi state television and commented that the Iraqi captain is either 35 or 36 years of age – acknowledging that Younis may not be 33 as his passport states. He’s not only a leader on the pitch but a mentor to the younger players and recently added the work of mediator to his increasingly expanding job description.
Loyalty and discipline are dualistic virtues that have been the fundamental mantra of Akram’s training career from his early days as player-coach at the first team he trained Esla Al-Mae and it hasn’t changed. Recently he was quick to banish Al-Shurta’s Dhargham Ismail – Iraq’s impressive left back at the Asian Cup in Australia – after he was absent from the first day of training. The player had spoken to the FA about allowing him to attend his brother’s wedding and had agreed on a day’s holiday to travel to his home city of Maysan. Akram however hadn’t been informed of the arrangements and in a stand-off at Baghdad Airport, the defender almost didn’t make it onto the plane for the training camp in Dubai. Even before he had taken charge of his first training session, he publicly called Swedish-based winger Ahmed Yasin “a liar” after a phone conversion with the player. Ahmed had told the Iraqi coach that he hadn’t trained with his team since the Asian Cup because of his mother’s illness. However the coach heard later from FA officials that he had played a number of games for his club Örebro SK in the Allsvenskan Swedish league and in another shotgun moment, immediately demanded the player be disciplined, calling it shameful that a player had lied to his coach. It was later explained by the player’s elder brother that there had been a mix-up– with Ahmed’s broken Arabic having been a barrier to explaining to the coach, that the player was travelling to and fro the hospital where he was sat by his mother’s bedside to either play or train with his club.
But Akram Salman’s quick-draw cowboy pistol shooting didn’t end there, when another tale of miscommunication between Yaser Kasim and the team doctor, after the player had come to see him complaining of fatigue. The Swindon Town midfielder had been told by the doctor that in the case of injuries or sickness, the doctor would sign him off but in any cases of tiredness, the decision would go to the head coach, meaning Akram Salman had the final say. The player left the doctor’s room, believing that the doctor himself would inform the coach and stayed in bed, missing the morning training session. And when Yaser missed the evening session, the irate Akram told the head of the delegation to hand the player his passport and tell him to return to London in the morning, thinking that he had missed training on purpose. Only a last minute intervention from Captain Younis Mahmoud saw Yaser reinstated.
There are stories involving Akram Salman and some players that are too extraordinary to be believed. Former Iraqi captain Haidar Mahmoud once claimed that the coach rejected the opportunity to recall him as he thought he still displayed loyalty to previous coach Adnan Hamad! While Salih Sadir was once dropped in 2006 after a player had a word in Akram’s ear alleging that the attacking midfielder then at Beirut-based Al-Ansar had bought a pair of new football boots that he would wear ‘only’ for Adnan Hamad, then his club coach in Lebanon. The story relayed to Akram Salman hadn’t been the complete truth but the coach known for his somewhat rash judgment dropped the player immediately. This degree of pettiness didn’t warm the rest of the group to the coach and in his two-year spell punished a handful of key players including Basim Abbas, Nashat Akram and Haidar Abdul-Razzaq and caused much resentment in the national team’s ranks. This is something he needs to avoid with the current batch of Lions to get the best out of them but the coach’s totalitarian attitude seems to be same as it has always been, seeing some of his players as spoilt little school children and is often too hasty to demand the stick when the carrot would do suffice in some situations.
Akram Salman has a trying job on his hands to get the Lions of Mesopotamia to only their second World Cup finals– and the Iraqi supporters will be quick to point out that bygone national team successes typically arise after the current incumbent Iraqi coach is given the boot – with Iraq only qualifying for the 1986 World Cup and lifting the 2007 Asian Cup in Jakarta after the technician was shown the door in his previous stretches with Al-Montakhab.
The new Technical Director of the Iraqi team will want to rectify that fact and make his own history with the team, and still find himself in the hot-seat once the next World Cup comes around, preferably with the Lions of Mesopotamia as one of Asia’s representatives in Russia. But be sure, from here on, it will be a bumpy ride with Akram Salman at the helm.