For almost two weeks all the discussions in the Iraqi sports media have been concerning Srećko Katanec’s proposed 23-man squad for the coming month’s international friendlies with Argentina and Saudi Arabia to be held this month in the Saudi city of Riyadh.
Such was the debate, a week ago, a list was published online and later proved to be ‘fake news’ with only a preliminary list of 38 players sent to Saudi authorities to apply for visas. Incidentally our friend the sports presenter Haidar Zaki of Al-Dijla’s Studio Al-Jumahar show believes the Iraq FA selected the players and that the Slovenian had no hand in naming the players! He had gone to the FA headquarters and when asking questions to members about the supposed list, they responded with their own queries. “Is the list released correct?!” the presenter asked. “Who said it’s correct?,” came the reply. Then he returned with a second question. “Is it true, Ayman Hussein was dropped?” “Who said?” It transpired Katanec had declared nothing would be released to the media about the squad list. The Slovenian was in the city of Arbil, awaiting his visa with his wife to travel to Baghdad!
Yesterday evening, Katanec who had been ‘under house arrest in Arbil’ according to one Iraqi website as he was confined to his hotel room with the fitness trainer designated as his personal chauffeur driver after the Iraqi FA failed to supply him with his own car, finally released his much-anticipated list. It included six changes from his first squad list which drew 2-2 with Kuwait last month. The players dropped were Humam Tariq (injured), Ayman Hussein, Brwa Nouri, Mohammed Kasid, Yaser Kasim and Mazin Fayadh. The new names were Justin Meram, Osama Rashid, Raad Fanar, Fahad Talib, Ali Husni and Al-Naft’s promising striker Mohammed Dawud. Later Ali Husni was dropped, with Al-Naft’s Mazin Fayadh taking his place.
One clear pattern emerges. Two expatriate players are dropped and two are selected in their place. I have come to the conclusion that the Iraq FA has placed a quota on the foreign based players or the ones described as mughtarabeen (expatriates), as on every occasion whenever a squad is named, an expatriate player is dropped, another takes his place. There are usually no more than four mughtarabeen players in the squad at one time.
Katanec’s agent Behrooz Dezhbod has categorically specified the Slovenian is very strict about his team selections and that no one interferes in his decision-making. I believe this is true. But if the Iraq FA insists they can only accommodate four expat players – for financial reasons relating to long-haul flights – then I am sure there could be some kind of compromise between the coach and the Iraq FA on the matter.
This is the only answer I have to the question, why the Iraq FA and any coach at the helm of the Iraqi national team have been so slow to calling up expatriate players. There has been a lot of talk about the seemingly imminent selection of Hammarby’s Jiloan Hamad and Rewin Amin of Östersunds SK, but if the current trend of the Iraqi FA’s slow-moving response remains in place, it is likely we may see the two Swedish based midfielders get a call-up after the 2019 Asian Cup and spend the next six or nine months waiting to complete their paperwork to play for Iraq. Why are there constant delays in selecting the players?
There have been clear prejudices against mughtarabeen which have been well-document and it is believed by some that with a foreign coach, these biases are far removed from the equation.
The new Iraqi coach Srecko Katanec has two paths he can to take if he has the World Cup in his sights, and as the saying goes, ‘all roads lead to Rome’, but in the case of Doha, this might not be true. If Katanec is serious in mounting a challenge for a place at the 2022 World Cup, he has to get the players acclimatised to the national team and the team camp before the qualifiers begin. Here we are on the eve of the Asian Cup, and we are discussing calling up expatriate players and if the rationality of the past continues to linger, these players will be left waiting even longer for an international call-up. How long did Osama Rashid have to wait for his opportunity, or Rebin Sulaka, Justin Meram and Frans Dhia Putros?
It is early days in Katanec’s reign, but we have seen this all before, whether it was under Wolfgang Sidka, Zico, Yahya Alwan, Radhi Shanaishel or Katanec’s predecessor Basim Qasim. The question over the selection of a certain expatriate player pops up in the debate and the Iraq FA and whoever is at the helm of the Iraqi national team is left dithering and twiddling his thumbs. This slow response has meant Iraq has lost out on talented players in the past, because the Iraq FA has not demonstrated any seriousness nor have a professional approach to the matter. There is rarely any monitoring of these players despite many of them playing professionally in the top divisions in Europe! Lest we forget the case of Yaser Kasim. The midfielder was only selected in 2013 after a proactive Iraqi football fan personally went to the Iraq FA headquarters to tell them the player was playing for Swindon Town against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup third-round and pointed out to them that the game was televised live on beIN Sports!
To hear one pundit and a youth coach once employed at the Iraq FA, come out and say a certain expatriate player is an unknown quantity because he plays in a league which was not televised in the Middle East (the Danish Superliga, the highest football league in Denmark) and then relate it to the case of another Iraqi player who is based in Jordan, where the level was more distinguished according to the Iraqi coach, cannot be fathomed. This is the level of debate in Iraq when it comes to expatriate players.
Katanec has two paths he can take from now. The first would to take a serious look at the form and level of some of these players, majority of whom are plying their trade in the top divisions in Europe More importantly he should show them the respect and professionalism expected and give them their chance when they are selected and not wait months pondering their inclusions or feeding sound-bites to the media about a possible call-up as the Iraq FA has done in the past. The second option would be to continue as the FA has done and remain seeing the expatriate players as mere added footballing condiments.