Srećko Katanec is a man of great contradiction, he is both open and vague on his views, erratic and explosive but at the same time demonstrates a calmness within and the ability to think rationally whilst everything else around him is in chaos. Even after a year in charge of Iraq, the Slovenian has not opened up about his philosophy or the way he wants his team to play.
His critics are always on his back about his indecisiveness over squad selections. The ex-Sampdoria centrocampista is ambiguous about most things when it comes to his side, however pragmatic is a word which is often repeated when describing his teams and their approach to games and opponents, very similar to the way Katanec himself played the game as player, being prepared before the game and implementing a rehearsed plan during it.
The 2022 World Cup
Slovenian Katanec was appointed more than a year ago with the prime objective to take Iraq to their first World Cup finals in more than 35 years. Qualifying for international tournaments in a group format is a numbers game, and Iraq in the past especially in the final qualifying group for the World Cup finals has always fallen behind in contention after the opening few matches. Sir Alex Ferguson when he was manager of Manchester United always looked at his team’s fixture list and that of his closest rivals at the start of the New Year and would try to predict the results and see how many points United needed to win the Premier League, and this is what Katanec will need to do. The important thing for Sir Alex was just to remain in contention for the title until the final months of the season. Under Zico and Radhi Shanaishel, World Cup qualification never looked a possibility for Iraq, after failing to win any of their opening two matches, it felt much like the Lions of Mesopotamia were always playing catch-up to the rest of their rivals and they were never really in actual contention despite some decent performances. Can Katanec change that trend? The answer to that question will come in the final group stages when Iraq have to play the calibre of Japan or South Korea in one game and face Saudi Arabia or Australia the next and return with four or even six points, when in previous campaigns Iraq would have performed well but come out of the matches with one point or no points.
Surgical masks, red rickshaws or ‘tuk-tuks’ and internet blackouts with the protests in Baghdad, which have claimed more than 300 people, have not derailed Katanec’s approach, he joked the internet ban had made his players more focused and had to move training from Baghdad, Arbil and now Amman but his mission never shifted. He has a group of players who he believes in and the Slovenian is focused on getting results. The dramatic win over Iran, even with the symbolism some may paint over the victory played in the shadow of events at Tahrir square, the game was only three points on the table and qualification has yet to be assured by Katanec’s men. The Iraqi coach has lived in a kind of bubble for most of his spell in charge, he doesn’t take criticism, which he rarely listens to as he doesn’t know of it nor watches Iraqi TV channels but even so, if any criticism does reach him, he just smiles and ignores it. From day one, a vocal section of the Iraqi media were very much against the appointment of Katanec, they felt the Iraqi team “deserved a world-class coach,” maybe with the illusions/delusions that a Jose Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola might decide to swap coaching world stars in the top leagues in the world to scouting new talents in the Iraqi League while trying to navigate their monthly salary from the Iraq FA, and this is what Katanec has had to face. An Iraqi FA at loggerheads with the Iraqi Olympic Committee over the new 140 resolution committee leading to Katanec’s wages being frozen at the Ministry because of a lack of an intermediary at the Iraq FA. But more than a year into the job and Iraqi fans are finally understanding the Slovenian and how he sets out his team. His critics in the press, TV and on social media often lay the criticism that his team lacks identity or philosophy, but what they refuse or do not realise is that, this is what Katanec’s teams are all about, the result and getting a result and not about a playing-style or a philosophy. His teams are adaptable with a “if we can’t win then we don’t lose” mentality and what has gone under the radar is the team’s feature of shifting formations from 5-4-1, to 3-4-3, 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. Katanec’s Iraq is starting to take shape. Wilmot’s Iran was Iraq’s first real test and there will be many more ahead if they want to reach the finals in Doha in three years time.
Justin and Ahmed and the siege mentality
From 2006, the topic of the Iraqi captaincy was a toxic one, so much that Nouri Sabri and Hawar Mulla Mohammed threatened to sit out key matches because they had been passed over in regards to the captaincy. This crept up during Katanec’s early days, the Iraqi sports media attempted to whip-up an issue over whether Ali Adnan had demanded the captaincy or if another player would take the armband. The Slovenian in his own calm style, looked with puzzlement at the question as for him it was never a big issue, and answered that it did not matter who the captain was, the issue was killed there and then. Katanec – with no obvious leader in his ranks – has handed the armband to several players, at present goalkeeper Jalal Hassan and Ahmed Ibrahim, the two most experienced players have been chosen as captain and vice-captain, with Ali Adnan, Ahmed Yasin and Humam Tariq next in the pecking order. This is what Katanec has done well, unlike officials in the Iraq FA wanting to instantly push away any blame laid at them, the Slovenian has not been reactive to an issue when it has been pushed into the public forum.
Katanec selected three newcomers in his 24-man squad for the World Cup qualifiers with Iran and Bahrain in Amman, the trio had never made any appearances for their country and with the Slovenian normally reluctant to blood untested players from the start, Hassan Humoud, Mohammed Ridha, and Shaker Abdul-Kadhim, are unlikely to see any playing time in the qualifiers. So with a compact squad of 21 players to select his team from, and the qualifiers moved from Basra to Amman, it set out this siege mentality from the coach. The omissions of Justin Meram and Ahmed Yasin also set out a message of players buying into his way of thinking and how important the mission of reaching the next round of the World Cup qualifiers was and being prepared for them. Justin wanted to play against Hong Kong and pull out of the second game in Cambodia, but Katanec felt he would be better suited by remaining in Atlanta. Ahmed Yasin had previously decided to pull out of the friendly with Uzbekistan in September after the opening qualifier in Manama, after he heard Justin Meram and Ali Adnan had agreed with the coaching staff to sit out the friendly in Amman, and be allowed to fly home, with Justin Meram making plans to propose to his girlfriend and Ali Adnan sorting out his passport in Baghdad. Ahmed Yasin was dropped for November’s qualifiers after sitting out the two previous matches through injury. The MLS-based Justin felt the long-haul flights from the United States to Basra and then Cambodia, would leave him too fatigued for the MLS play-offs and he was correct, his fellow team-mate Ali Adnan, also from the MLS with the Vancouver Whitecaps, flew to Basra from Canada and did not start against Hong Kong. To play two games in such a short space of time and expect someone to perform at the best of their abilities would have been difficult for any player.
Justin Meram understood playing two matches in that short time period after the long-haul flights, wouldn’t allow him to produce his best, whether for Iraq or Atlanta United. The way it was handled could have been better on both sides, but Katanec, I believe, wanted to send out a message and this is why he has come out and stated, albeit through the Iraq team manager Basil Gorgis, that the reason for Justin and Ahmed Yasin’s omission was purely technical, meaning it was based on form. They will be back. This is how Katanec works, players can come out and criticise the Slovenian and his methods, like Ali Faiz, Alaa Abdul-Zahra and Mohammed Kasid have done in the past and while the coach’s initial reaction was not to talk publicly about the issue, he drops the player to send out a message and then if he is in need of the player, he will be recalled. Alaa Abdul-Zahra is such an example. The Iraqi coaching staff felt they lacked experience in the squad, and wanted a player who the younger members could look to for support both on and off the field, and they looked to Al-Shurta’s Alaa Abdul-Zahra.
The Iraqi League’s top scorer Alaa Abdul-Zahra had not even played under the Slovenian and had come out and publicly attacked Katanec for “looking with one eye,” alleging he saw what he wanted over his team selections and questioned whether it was the coach who was actually picking the squad. The coach was asked about Alaa’s remarks and initially refused to comment on the specific issue but returned with his own question over why some of the top players in the world don’t play for their national teams, throwing out the name of Gonzalo Higuaín of Argentina as an example. “I don’t call a player who thinks bad for me, how is that possible?” Katanec asked. His next remark was an illustration of his philosophy, “We have this group of players and I believe in these group of players and that is it.” It reminded me of an anecdote from a former Iraqi player from the Sixties sitting on the bench beside trainer and army captain Adil Basher. Iraq’s army team were playing the Kuwaiti Army and Ammo Baba was having a poor game, the player turned to the coach and asked why he had not made a change, but Adil Basher didn’t respond, later into the match, the substitute was made and Ammo Baba came off. Iraq went onto score and the coach told the player sitting beside him that whether he Ammo Baba had performed well or not, it was all to benefit the team, everyone had to pull together and buy into the thinking of one team, strive for the cause, which was Al-Montakhab.
Jiloan Hamad and Zico
One of the main talking points in the 2-0 victory over Hong Kong in Basra last month was the 32-minute cameo appearance of Jiloan Hamad. For several months the midfielder, who plys his trade in Croatia with HNK Gorica, was waiting for clearance from FIFA to represent Iraq, a process in which the Interior Ministry and the Minister of Youth got involved to confirm the Baku-born player had received Iraqi nationality through birth. Katanec had even stated Jiloan Hamad could not be picked because he had played for Sweden, after seemingly being given incorrect details by officials in the Iraq FA over the matter. And finally Jiloan Hamad made his debut coming on for Amjad Atwan, who looked from the TV images to have completely ignored the newcomer, however Amjad took to social media to state people were reading too much into pictures and coming to different conclusions. But that was just the start, in the 32 minutes and 19 seconds on the field, the player only received one single pass from a fellow team-mate despite making himself available on numerous occasions. Fans on social media pointed out that the Iraqi players were seemingly refusing to pass the ball to the debutante. What’s more extraordinary was that even journalists picked up on this, with Adnan Lafta angrily stating on Studio Al-Jumahar “They did not even give him one pass, all the world saw it. That is the (mentality) of the Iraqi player, he wants control his position in the team and the position has to be his domination, he does not let any professional (player) come in his place.” The presenter of the show Haidar Zaki asked if the players had done it deliberately. “Yes, I believe he was warred against,” the journalist stated. “I witnessed it at the stadium and my colleagues who were there, the boy was running on his own and no one gave him one pass, he touched the ball maybe once or twice.” He called on people to think with an Iraqi mentality stating any player who could serve the country and national team, regardless of whether he played outside of Iraq or in the local league, concluding “Why do we put up these barriers, I want the whole national team to be one clique in spirit and cooperation.”
— Hassanin Mubarak (@hassaninmubarak) October 10, 2019
Jiloan the most successful player in Europe of Iraqi origin was then dropped by Katanec. Most likely, the barrier or wall which has been talked about, needs a bit of time before it falls and with Iraq facing Iran and Bahrain, the coach needed to avoid such distractions. This was the same case with Ahmed Yasin under Zico. Ahmed like Jiloan Hamad is an Iraqi expatriate as people inside of Iraq would describe them, the two even played in the same youth team at Örebro-based BK Forward. In 2012, Ahmed Yasin was called into the national team for a training camp in Istanbul after excelling with the Olympic side, however what Iraq’s coach Zico noticed was no one was passing the ball to the Swedish-based youngster in training. He knew if it continued it would dispirit the young talent and potentially ruin him. So Zico decided to drop him and over time, Ahmed was brought back into the team and eventually made his debut and became a regular. This is not something new and I wrote about this matter several years ago when I stated “If Messi was of Iraqi origin, he would never be given a fair chance to play for Al-Montakhab by the Iraqi Football Association. Many have tried and been shown the door, the reason is that many in Iraq, especially people running the Association do not see these mughtarabeen (expatriate) players as Iraqis,” things have moved on from those days especially within the Iraqi FA set-up, but there is still a barrier with Ibn Al-Malha (Sons born and bred in Iraq) and mughtarab (an expatriate) within the team, with the former not wanting to lose their place to the latter. It will take time, but once Jiloan Hamad is given an opportunity to show how good he is, as we all know he is, then that wall will be brought down in an instant.
A big reason for Iraq’s recent success has been the discovery of a natural goal scorer in Mimi, the product of Ammo Baba’s Football School. Iraqi fans should thank ex-coach Basim Qasim for being persisted in his attempts to select the forward. In 2017 the coach had enjoyed a good start to his tenure after a win and two draws and in a meeting with the Iraq FA the coach put forward his own vision and how he wanted the Iraqi team of the future to play. Basim Qasim felt Iraq needed to change its style of play, into a team which had the ability to quickly turn defence into attack. The coach put forward the names of five players he believed he needed to implement his philosophy. One of the names was Hassan Ali of Al-Kahraba, then topping the goalscorers’ list in the Iraqi league and the young striker had been brought to the attentions of the Iraqi coach after his four goals in a win over Al-Karkh in the Iraqi league. But the Iraq FA refused, telling Basim Qasim there was no way he could play in international competitions with the risk of sanctions against the player and the FA hanging over him. Hassan Ali had appeared in AFC competitions for Iraq’s U-14s under the name Mohanad Ali and with a different date of birth and the Iraq FA did not want to face any fine or ban. But Basim Qasim did not give up and went as far as the Iraqi judiciary to get it confirmed that Hassan Ali was Mohanad Ali, and on the eve of the Gulf Cup in Kuwait the striker was selected.
Under Katanec, Mohanad Ali has scored 10 goals in 18 matches and his performances has excited Iraq’s fans. He took just four minutes to open his account in Katanec’s first game and the forward has not stopped there, his star his constantly rising, remarkable considering he has only one goal in 11 matches for Al-Duhail, where he last started a game three months ago. But what has been so impressive is Mimi’s ability to score when the Iraqi team needed it most. His late goal in Manama was priceless on the opening game of the World Cup qualifiers, despite many observers seeing it at the time as two points dropped rather than one point gained. It could have been very different, if Iraq had a goalscorer like Mimi in past campaigns. In the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, Iraq faced a similar obstacle at the same time of year in Manama facing a resilient Bahraini side, with the humidity playing a big part in the game, as the Iraqi side lost 2-0. Things now are different as Katanec’s Iraq is more pragmatic in its approach, despite the early set-back from Mohammed Hamed’s blunder, the Lions of Mesopotamia were always in the game, and with one chance from Mimi they came away with a point, where on other occasions they would have left with nothing.
It is very much early, early days in Iraq’s World Cup campaign, the journey to reach Doha has just begun, but as long as Iraq have a chance, even the slightest possibility of qualifying going into the final matches of the group stages, anything is possible. This team despite its limitations, if compared to the traditional top ranking teams on the Asian continent, who are always there contending and qualifying for World Cups every four years, if Iraq remain in contention they have a chance. North Korea’s 2010 World Cup team should be an inspiration to Katanec’s men. The North Koreans were not the most gifted of teams, however managed to pick-up points home and away and always kept themselves within touching distance of their rivals until the final game of the World Cup qualifiers. Iraq are much the same, with Katanec always being prepared for each game, he knows what he has to do, the question is, are the Lions of Mesopotamia capable of pulling off a surprise and qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar? We wait and see.