ٱلْعِرَاق / al-ʿIrāq / عێراق / Êraq / Iraq
- Capital: Baghdad / بَغْدَاد
- Official Languages: Arabic, Kurdish
- Recognised Languages: Turkmen, Syriac, Armenian
- Nicknames: Usood Al-Rafidain (Lions of Mesopotamia)
- Association: Iraq Football Association (IFA) / الاتحاد العراقي لكرة القدم
- FIFA Code: IRQ
- Best World Cup Result (Men): Group Stage (1986)
- Best World Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best Asian Cup Result (Men): WINNERS (2007)
- Best Asian Cup Result (Women): Not Qualified
- Best WAFF Championship Result (Men): WINNERS (2002)
- Best WAFF Championship Result (Women): Group Stage (2011)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Men): 39th (October 2004)
- Highest FIFA Ranking (Women): 107th (December 2017)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Men): 139th (July 1996)
- Lowest FIFA Ranking (Women): 148th (September 2015)
- Most Capped Player: Younis Mahmoud – 148 caps
- Top Scorer: Hussein Saeed – 78 goals
The West Asian country of the Republic of Iraq is situated in the important region of Mesopotamia, and is one of the larger countries in the ‘Middle East‘. The Iraq FA were founded in 1948 and subsequently joined FIFA two years later in 1950, although they didn’t take part in any major tournament qualifying until the early 1970s. They made their major tournament debut in the 1972 Asian Cup finishing in the group stage, before finishing in an impressive fourth place in the 1976 Asian Cup. Due to the political situaton in the country, they failed to enter any further Asian Cups within the 1980s but did qualify for their first (and to date, only) appearance in the 1986 World Cup, where they performed admirably but subsequently finished bottom in a group containing the hosts Mexico, Paraguay and Belgium.
They would return to the Asian Cup in 1996, where the Iraqi team would reach the quarter-finals, and would repeat the feat in the following two Asian Cups. However in 2007, after the country had been invaded and the previous regime toppled, they stunned the football world by winning the Asian Cup – their first major trophy. Using a cosmopolitan team made up of the numerous ethnicities within the country, and with the country still in political turmoil, they beat rivals Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Indonesia to produce one of football’s greatest stories. Since then, they finished in fourth place once again in the 2015 Asian Cup, and reached the Round of 16 in the most recent edition in 2019. In the qualification stage for the 2022 World Cup, they were regarded as one of the better teams in the AFC by being ranked as the ninth best team in Asia. They are subsequently leading their World Cup qualification group, two points ahead of second-placed side Bahrain, and four points ahead of top-seed Iran.
Talking about the surprise 2007 Asian Cup winners, and a side who reached the Round of 16 in the most recent Asian Cup in 2019, we interviewed the brilliant Hassanane Balal from the excellent Iraq Football Podcast. The Iraq Football Podcast is a podcast which naturally focuses on all things involving Iraqi football whether its the players in the various leagues, the Iraqi league, and the national team, as well as being “the voice of Iraqi football fans worldwide“. To find their social media accounts, website, and podcast, follow the links below:
- Twitter: @IraqFootballPod
- Website: https://iraqfootball.me/
- Podcasts: Apple Podcasts; Soundcloud; Spotify
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/IraqFootballPod/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hassanane/
- YouTube: IFP Channel
Q. Who would you say is your country’s best player and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?
Ammo Baba is often considered Iraq’s best ever manager due to his long-lasting influence on Iraqi football, including victories in various tournaments. His academy continues to produce a huge number of Iraqi talents even today, despite the player passing away some time ago. He is also considered by some to be Iraq’s best ever player, although there is contention for that accolade. Hussein Saeed is Iraq’s top goalscorer with 78 international goals, whilst Ahmed Radhi is the only Iraqi to ever score in a World Cup. Younis Mahmoud, Iraq’s captain during the Asian Cup 2007 winning campaign, has also secured his legacy as a legend of the game. As to who is Iraq’s best ever player? I really can’t give an answer.
Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ in terms of the national team both in the past and present?
Iraq are fortunate to have a huge number of fantastic players, which makes it difficult to answer this question. Nashat Akram is often seen as one of the best Iraqi players ever, who was highly influential in our 2007 Asian Cup winning side. He also opened up the doorway for Iraqi players to move to Europe, having secured a massive transfer to Manchester City in 2007. Unfortunately, he wasn’t granted a work permit, but Nashat would have been the first Iraqi to play in the Premier League. Instead, Nashat moved to FC Twente where he left with a league winner’s medal despite having a tough time in Holland with injuries.
Currently, Ali Adnan is the biggest personality in the Iraqi dressing room. He’s had a huge career so far, playing for Udinese and Atalanta in Serie A. Currently, he’s playing for Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS but he’s expected to move back to Europe soon.
Q. Of the current team, who would you say is the best player from Iraq currently?
Mimi (Mohanad Ali) has been carrying the national team for some time, despite some tough periods at club level. He has continuously won us games with his clinical finishing and excellent work rate. He might not be our most talented player, but what he brings to the national team is unmatched.
Q. How would you describe the current state/performance of the national team?
Following a disastrous few years, Iraq have finally found a manager who has created a national team that possess great strength in depth and a winning mentality. Srečko Katanec might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Iraq’s longest ever serving manager is on the brink of something special if he can find a way to incorporate our talented expats into the current team get us to the 2022 World Cup.
Q. Are there any Iraqi players who you think we should be focusing on for the future – who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent from the country?
There are a huge number of talents coming up, but the three players that really stand out for Iraq right now are Ali Al-Hamadi at Swansea City [18 year-old striker], Zidane Iqbal at Manchester United [17 year-old midfielder] and Cardo Siddik for Crystal Palace [18 year-old defender]. They’re all still young but are doing great at youth level and hopefully all three will make their first team debuts soon.
Q. Looking at Iraq’s international history, what would you say has been the best game, result or performance for the national team in your opinion?
Whilst Iraq’s only ever World Cup campaign came in 1986, the 2007 Asian Cup victory will forever be Iraq’s greatest footballing achievement and the most incredible underdog story the world will ever see. Winning against fierce rivals, Saudi Arabia, in the final was the icing on the cake. However, what makes this victory so sweet is that it is the ultimate against all odds following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The entire country was on the brink of collapse, however, this victory united the country when politics and religion couldn’t.
Q. Likewise, is there a performance or result which is regarded as the team’s lowest point?
For all the many victories Iraq have enjoyed, we’ve also had our fair share of disappointments. The game that stands out the most is Iraq failing to build on their 2007 Asian Cup victory by losing 0-1 at home against Qatar in 2008 during our 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. This was our chance to finally break the curse but we were still unable to reach our first World Cup since 1986 despite having an incredible squad.
Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Iraqi national team?
As Iraqis, we don’t exactly have much to celebrate unfortunately. We love football more than anything and our national team is our pride. Nothing beats watching our national team win. However, the amount of corruption in Iraqi football has held us back for decades.
Q. Have the fans adopted some kind of unofficial anthem to sing along to before/during/after matches?
The number of songs and anthems the national team has is unrivalled by any other country. We have songs that we play after every single match. Some of the lyrics have also been incorporated as chants for the national team. It’s a unique aspect of being an Iraqi football fan.
Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the whole time of the national team?
My favourite shirt is the jersey Iraq’s Olympic team wore to Rio 2016 due to its aesthetics. However, the most iconic jersey has to be the unique gold or blue kits Iraq wore to the 1986 Mexico World Cup.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the Iraqi national team?
Under Katanec, Iraq have finally developed a stable national team that has beaten many good teams such as Iran and Qatar. We need to continue building on this and bring a more attacking mindset to our team. The only way this can happen is by Iraq utilising the many talented expat players we have, such as Justin Meram, Jiloan Hamad, Osama Rashid and Rewan Amin. Together with our current squad, we will hopefully be able to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
A massive شكرا جزيلا to Hassanane from the Iraq Football Podcast for answering our questions on the Lions of Mesopotamia. Remember you can find their excellent account, website and podcast in the links at the top of the blogpage.
If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at email@example.com or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.