They came, they saw, they fought bravely (misfiring aimlessly and hitting the upright three times) but were left in streams of tears laid out on the cut-up green lawn at the Arena Corinthians, on a Wednesday evening of frustrations and disappointments in São Paulo. That was the Iraqi Olympic team in Brazil, so what happened?
Iraqi coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad began the Rio Games sitting in the stands and ended it by taking out his frustrations on a container of water bottles. The man he had pinned his Olympic hopes on, the striker Mohanad Abdul-Rahim had let him down, finished as he had begun the tournament, missing chance after chance. 29 shots on goal in the game for the Iraqis and it was obvious it was not going to be their night, the footballing gods had not smiled on them against an open but resilient South Africans, who were all but there for the taking.
For more than two months or 66 days to be exact, the Iraqi players have been away from their families and loved ones, training determinedly and tirelessly for this very event. The Iraqi football authorities and the Iraqi head coach Radhi Shanaishel had even sacrificed their early World Cup preparations to give the Olympic coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad first pick on the players. The Olympic committee spared no expense on training camps in various countries on the European continent, kitting the team out with a deal with German sportswear suppliers Adidas and managed to entice Gonzalo Rodriquez to jump ship to join the Under 23s side while the Iraqi FA sluggishly tried and failed to negotiate a new coach with the fitness trainer, and with him came Spanish compatriots, physio Jose Luis and team advisor “Tintín” Márquez, one-time head coach of La Liga club Espanyol. Everything was at the Iraqi Olympic players and the staff’s disposal. So what went wrong in Brazil?
Firstly only a few hours before kick-off against South Africa, key defender Mustafa Nadhim had heard about the tragic and sudden death of his mother back home in Diwaniya and sat out the game with Saad Natiq deputising. Sherko Karim was dropped for the returning Ali Husni. Both players Saad and Ali would have a part to play in the match, first a cross from the right came off Saad’s body and landed perfectly in the box for a South African striker to score the opener, a gift for Gift Motupa. Then the other Saad, Iraq’s captain Saad Abdul-Amir was found unmarked from Ali Adnan’s corner and headed in the equaliser a few minutes later. 1-1 was the score, a scoreline that was not enough to see Iraq through to the quarters.
Needing a goal to qualify, Abdul-Ghani Shahad made an error that was wide as the stretched out arms of the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statute overlooking the Olympic host city of Rio, when he took off his main playmaker Ali Husni and left winger Ali Adnan. There may have been a slight case for replacing Ali Adnan, who was not playing in his natural position but the other Ali had been Iraq’s brightest player. In came Sherko Karim and Hamadi Ahmed and what did the Iraqi coach do? He played the two substitutes in the same positions despite neither Sherko or Hamadi being wide players and the change failed to have the desired effect Shahad had wanted. The change of Ali Husni, undoubtedly Iraq’s best player, had taken the wind out of Iraq’s sails.
But there are many positives to take from the Olympic side in Rio – a bulk of the team will represent Iraq in the years to come, and three of the youngest players Sherko Karim, Ali Faiz and Amjad Atwan established that they were more than capable of playing at the top international level in their age group. A bright future is predicted for the three with the Iraqi seniors.
But you have to look at the core of why Iraq failed and that is, too much of Iraq’s hopes was placed on the shoulders of one man, the centre forward – the only natural centre forward the Iraqi coach took with him to Rio – Mohanad Abdul-Rahim. A striker whose goals guided Al-Zawraa to the league title last season.
Mohanad has been one of the best players at youth level. However, we have to talk openly, he is a 26-year-old striker playing Under 23 and he still looks slightly out of his depth at times and while he may have dominated Under 19 and Under 20 defences at the AFC U-19 Championship and the FIFA U-20 World Cup, at the Olympics he’s found his ceiling. At 26, a striker should be at his best, the peak almost of his career, but Mohanad is anything but, is this the best he will be or can be? Sidestepping that question, for a moment, Shahad should have selected an extra striker in the squad whether it was Abdul-Qadir Tariq or even Marwan Hussein to help Mohanad and play two strikers both in attack.
Mohanad on the other hand, has not improved from three years ago when he led the Iraqi team at the World U-20 Cup and yes, the forward has had his injury problems over the past two years but if you want a true measure of where a top 26-year-old striker should be in his career, than look no further than Younis Mahmoud, Emad Mohammed and Razzaq Farhan, each of these strikers were regular goal scorers at that period in their career. In 2006 Younis was unplayable in the Qatari league and with Iraq his goal record was as good as a goal a game (8 goals in 10 appearances) and those goals were in key qualifiers. Emad was pretty much the same and Razzaq Farhan was one of the top scorers in the leagues in Bahrain and the UAE and went onto become the first Iraqi to score over 100 goals in the Gulf leagues. However reversing the effects of aging, making Mohanad 22 years on paper and not 26 years of age as he actually is and he looks like a great prospect for the future, with coaches believing he will improve over time when in truth, at 26, Mohanad is at the peak of his career.
But this is not to pin everything on Mohanad Abdul-Rahim, Iraq’s exit from the Rio Games was not his fault, he gave a good performance and played well but it just was not his night. But that’s football, you win and you lose. And you cannot blame the Iraqi players (each one of them) for not trying. They gave everything and fought bravely and no one can criticise them for that.
The Iraqi coach Shahad should have changed his formation and tried to take a gamble and stuck a second striker (or even a third) with Mohanad, either Sherko or the likely option of Hamadi. He knew he needed a victory and after 20 or so shots on goal, the coach should have changed tactic in the final third. Two of Iraq’s joint-top league goal scorers against a South African defence would have stood more chance of scoring than playing the same 4-5-1 and relying on the non-existent service from the flanks into the box (which never arrived).
Even ex-Iraqi captain retiree, the non-retired but retired Younis Mahmoud (if that makes any sense), mentioned just this after the match, that Ali Husni – Iraq’s liveliest player on the night – should have never been taken off and Hamadi should have been played as the main striker.
Some say Younis should have gone to Rio, maybe but I doubt he would have made much of a difference if he could only score three goals in 19 matches in a weak Iraqi league than how would he have fared at the Olympics? His legs have long gone and playing 4-5-1 would not have benefited or helped Iraq score more goals. The issue is the system, had the Iraqi coach used Sherko and Hamadi, or even one of them as strikers rather than overworked labourers out on the wings concentrating more of their efforts on defensive matters and pressuring their opponent whenever they had the ball – significantly reducing their efficiency – instead of instructing at least one of the two, to play in or around the penalty area. Hamadi is a proven goal scorer in the Iraqi league, a fox in the box and in the final minutes was more dangerous when he was inside the six-yard area than he had been when he came on for Ali Husni and played out wide on the right.
Were Iraq good enough to qualify?
Age fraud has to be a factor, are Iraq’s Under 23 as strong as we believe? Why can Iraq compete with Brazil at Under 23 level but were taught a lesson at senior level? This is what Nashat Akram mentioned when he came off in that game in 2012, thinking inwardly to himself that he had felt he had “never played anything that was reminiscent of football before” – after watching the Brazilians pass the ball around as if they were on Copacabana beach in Rio. The Brazilian superstars of Kaka, Hulk and even Neymar (before he was in Alaa Mahawi’s pocket) ran rings around the Iraqi team that cold evening in Sweden. They lost 6-0 with the stars of the 2007 Asian Cup, considered one of Iraq’s best generations. Football has advanced and that game in Malmö very much proof that Iraqi coaches are not picking up on different or modern playing styles, nor even experimenting or trying different ways of playing football on the pitch. It has stuck to the same formula and from the day Adnan Hamad changed the team’s formation from 3-5-2 to 4-5-1 in the second half of the 2004 Asian Cup quarterfinal with China, no Iraqi coach has endeavoured or even believed in playing two or even three forwards. It’s been the same monotonous dogmatic formation since then.
Let’s get this straight, there are no doubts over whether Iraqi players alter their ages, trust me on this, if you are behind the scenes or know the inner workings of Iraqi football and the history behind it, there’s no need to even ask the question “Does Iraq use overage players?” If you still have doubts than you have not followed Iraqi football closely enough or you’re most likely a part-time follower, watching tournament matches here and there. It happens, it’s a fact, some of the top names in Iraqi football past and present have done it and pre-2003 it was sanctioned by the top Iraqi sports authorities and this is why Younis Mahmoud and Nour Sabri could play at the Olympic Games in Athens twelve years ago. This year in March on the team sheet for the friendly with Syria in Tehran, Younis Mahmoud’s date of birth was noted as 1979-02-18 and Nour Sabri’s DOB was 1980-12-18. The Ministry of Youth has even issued an ID card with Younis Mahmoud’s DOB written as 1979. Make no mistake, this is their real dates of births and this was how it was made possible for them to play at the Olympic Games in 2004! 15 of Iraq’s 18 players who took part at the U-23 Olympic football tournament in Athens twelve years ago were over 23 years of age and out of the 15 only three of those were permitted by tournament rules! That team or generation of players had great promise, peaking in 2007 when the players were in their prime, at 27 or 28 years of age and their performances and results on the international stage reflected this very fact.
In the past Iraqi national coaches would know this and plan ahead, renewing the national team players once the players hit their early 30s, Ammo Baba did it in 1982 when Iraq should have won the Gulf Cup that same year but were withdrawn by the order of Saddam Hussein to hand the cup to Kuwait. It was a strong team with the likes of Hassan Farhan, Adil Khudhair, Hadi Ahmed and Falah Hassan but Ammo Baba knowing that it was an aging team, that it would have to be dismantled in the next two years, completely revamped the side dropping key players all at once and went onto win the Asian Games a few months later in New Delhi. New players such as Karim Allawi, Khalil Allawi, Ahmed Radhi and Natiq Hashim went onto qualify for Iraq’s first and only World Cup four years later. The great coach Ammo Baba knew the real ages of the players however the likes of Sidka, Zico, Petrović did not have that benefit of prior knowledge of the real ages of Nashat Akram, Younis Mahmoud and Nour Sabri and each time the team lost in some of the worst in the national team’s history and the performances dropped, the players would be benched for a while and returned back in the belief that they were in their mid-20s and had time to improve! This factor has held back Iraq’s national team since the 2007 Asian Cup victory along with the thinking of the Iraqi FA officials, literally dinning out on the bank cards of Iraq’s well-paid and influential foreign-based professional players, gaining flight upgrades and having other expenses paid for them by these clique of wealthy players – making it difficult to drop them from the national team and get rid of such luxuries.
Could Iraq compete at the Olympics without tazweer (age fraud)?
Six of Iraq’s eleven players would not have been eligible to take part against Brazil, if Olympic authorities had been given a quick peek of their actual age – birth age not passport age – and from the rest of the five eligible players, two of those were the permitted over 23 players – so in truth only three players were Under 23 players. Three out of 11 players! Three of the most talented youngsters, Alaa Mahawi, Sherko Karim and Amjad Atwan. So this cannot be classified as an Olympic U-23 team but a full senior side. If Iraq could produce nine more players of the same calibre of Alaa, Sherko and Amjad, who were actually Under 23, the nation’s football would be stronger for it. This is why we have delusions of grandeur into believing this is actually an Under 23 team competing with the world’s best at the same age group when more than half have been playing first team football in the Iraqi league for almost a decade. It makes a significant difference, but skewing the facts is what Iraq’s youth teams is all-about, not to nurture talent for the future but to get people to believe that the system is achieving something and progressively working, for Olympic president Raad Hammoudi or the head of Iraqi FA’s delegation in Rio, Sharar Haidar, Iraqi FA president Abdul-Khaliq Masoud to fly first class around the world to mingle and hobnob with world figures and say “we’re doing a great job, look at our football team.” These are the real fraudsters and they have taken the Iraqi fans for the ride with spectators sycophantically cheering them on. Tazweer compensates for and promotes a lack of vision and actual pre-planning and funding on the part of Iraqi sports authorities and the real matters on the agenda for Iraqi sport and generally football, its the easy fix and it also keeps Iraq’s football fans blindly pleased and regular funding funnelled into coffers of sports officials and not the sport itself. Iraq’s current football authorities are building nothing for the future generations and will leave a hollow legacy – underpinned by tazweer-inspired victories just like the wins at the 2004 U-23 Olympics in Athens and the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey with players as old as 26! – claiming they unearthed a new generation of Iraqi players but keeping the real reasons of its success hidden for many years to come.
Strict state censorship under the Baathist regime prevented people from openly admitting the practise of tazweer was being applied in Iraq’s youth systems, and today the Iraqi media, free in part, are working in cohorts with sports officials not to release such ‘sensitive’ stories as not to embarrass or besmirch the reputation and name of the country, and this is partly why self-censorship is imposed on the Iraqi media, the same kind that kept this Baathi-inspired practise a secret for so many years. Today, its secrecy only aids the higher powers of Iraqi sport and football, because they are the people who benefit most from tazweer. If not for age fraud, Iraq would have slim pickings over its international football achievements since 2003 with only the 2007 Asian Cup victory, the fourth place at the 2015 Asian Cup, and runners-up spot at the 2013 Gulf Cup worth any note. This is despite more money having been ploughed into Iraqi football than it has ever seen before compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Then look at the age range achievements at U14 to U-23 level and you see a pattern emerging, Iraqi champions at U-14 level and dominant at other age range tournaments but barely competing with the rest of the top nations in Asia or even the Gulf – giving the Iraqi sports officials a slight illusion of its sporting successes and achievements when it is failing in all other areas.
Iraq’s World Cup qualification 30 years ago was the fruit of years of hard labour first set-up by the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and the Iraq FA junior systems from the ages 12 to 16, at Youth Centres and sending youngsters of the likes of Ahmed Jassim, Natiq Hashim, Basim Qasim, Ghanim Oraibi, Karim Allawi and Ahmed Radhi, abroad to take part in youth tournaments such as the Dana and Gothia Cup in Scandinavia. That generation went onto become one of the best Iraq has ever produced, qualifying for the Olympic Games three times, winning the Asian Games and the Gulf Cup on three occasions in the 1980s and most importantly reaching Iraq’s solidary World Cup in Mexico. But this was no overnight success, with Youth Centres first founded in the late 1960s and the FA’s junior systems in the early 1970s – little of Iraq’s success can be attributed to the Under 19s teams – who have featured overage players from its inception. Iraq’s success at domestic and international in the late 70s and throughout the 1980s came invariably from these dedicated junior youth systems and Youth Centres up and down the country – like the Ammo Baba football school, heavily neglected by football authorities in the country. The Under 19s were primarily unofficial B teams for the Iraq Football Association and in fact the first captain of the Iraqi Under 19s in 1975 the striker Kadhim Waal was actually the same age as the captain of the senior team that same year, Falah Hassan, and they had both started out with the same team and both were born in 1951! However Kadhim was on the borders of the senior side so the Iraqi FA decided to select him to play for the Shabab (youth) team – a kind of de-facto Iraq B team.
Olympic ideals and aspirations – not in Iraq
Iraq has managed just one single Olympic medal – a bronze in nearly 70 years! You may say that Iraq has suffered a number of wars, years of sanctions, violence, kidnappings, daily suicide and car bombs and today is fighting terrorism every day. But millions of dollars is being pumped out into Iraq’s sports organisations and what Iraq gets in return as a matter of achievements or medals at regional or international level is pitiful if not pathetic. And money is being spent on sports just not on the right facilities or training programs nor even young sportsmen or women. Age fraud was a factor in Rio but what was more apparent was the football that was played. Iraq has obvious talent but ‘this win at any cost’ mentality at youth level has meant Iraq’s coaches have had to sacrifice nurturing and bringing young players forward – for mere victories – some would say empty and over the years prove to be rather pointless wins. Early last season, one player Mohanad Ali Kadhim had to revert to his real name Hassan and age after using his younger brother’s details to play at Under 14 level where he was top scorer and won Iraq the championship. He represented and scored in the Iraqi league for Al-Shurta – his real age was 17! A striker at 17 playing against Under 14 players! It is happening and no denial or covering your hands over your ears will change it.
The heavily neglected Iraqi league is another reason, the grassless fields – chewed clean of any playable greenery – in the domestic league has made it impossible for teams to play anything that resembles football, instead teams are lumping the ball up in days reminiscent of the old English Football League days à la Wimbledon and that is doing a disservice to the team of John Fashanu and Vinnie Jones, they played with a style, had character, a winning mentality, that cannot be said for many of Iraq’s clubs competing in the Iraqi League – where it’s the same brand of numbingly futile football for a vast majority of the teams.
Then there are the rundown stadiums or training fields and facilities, even the basics or its widespread lack of, not even touching on the diet of a modern day Iraqi league player (timmen ow mareg’) and with clubs failing to understand the benefits of employing a qualified fitness coach. And then the chaotic flight bookings which have left countless Iraqi players sleeping on the floors of airports around the world which was one of Ali Adnan’s core grievances (which are more than valid) for making his premature retirement from international football. How can you expect a player to perform on a match to match basis when these basics are not offered to them? Iraqi FA and the Olympic committee president fly around the world with their entourages in first class – the main reason why these high-power figures travel to watch the games – while the players make multiple transit flight stops in economy to reach their final destinations fatigued and jetlagged, and people still expect these same players to win football matches and to perform to their best every game? The Udinese player says there has to be a revolution in Iraqi football but I don’t see that coming any soon. Football has evolved and Iraq has barely caught up and even tazweer earned victories cannot paint over those open cracks.