x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Fifa U20 World Cup: With one win all of Iraq's yesterdays are present

Iraq recapture some of their past glory and hold promise for the Arab world by reaching the semi-finals of the competition, writes Ali Khaled.

Iraq’s Farhan Shakor, No 19, celebrates with teammates and staff after scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout on Sunday.
Iraq’s Farhan Shakor, No 19, celebrates with teammates and staff after scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout on Sunday.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as a farce, Karl Marx said.

Iraqis have witnessed and endured far too many real-life tragedies in the last two decades to bestow that label on a mere football match, but a good number of them must have felt the term was apt at certain times on Sunday night.

Seconds away from a 3-2 win against South Korea in the Fifa Under 20 World Cup quarter-final, Iraq conceded an extra-time, injury-time goal to take the tie into a penalty shoot-out.

For Iraq, who were on something of a revenge mission, it was an excruciating case of déjà vu. For their fantastically noisy fans, pure heart-break.

In November last year, Iraq had lost on penalties to the South Koreans in the final of the AFC Under 19 Championship played at Ras Al Khaimah, having thrown away a 1-0 lead in the dying minutes of normal time. Still, at least that final appearance was enough to qualify the same group of players to the Under 20 tournament in Turkey.

Sunday's drama surpassed even that, the 3-3 draw perhaps the best match of the tournament so far.

Three times Iraq took the lead, two of them in the regulation 90 minutes, and three times the Koreans pegged them back. The third Korean equaliser echoed November's – in injury time just as the Iraqi fans were celebrating a 118th-minute Farhan Shakor goal – and what must have seen as an inevitable win.

Briefly the players looked shell-shocked. This Iraq team, however, is made of stern stuff.

"A special breed of players," their coach Hakeem Shaker has called them.

Earlier, as the full-time whistle sounded, the Korean players sporadically received massages to their aching limbs. The Iraq coach, however, gave his attentive players a tactical talk. For him, this was not about simply lasting the distance. Memories of RAK were far too fresh to settle for penalties again. Another defeat was simply unthinkable.

But penalties it was, after that astonishing finish. For Iraq, it was tempting to conjure Sir Alf Ramsey's words from the 1966 World Cup final: "You've won it once, now go out and win it again."

The players huddled for prayer, the captain issuing one last battle cry: "Long live Iraq."

Just like in RAK, there were tears at Kadir Has Stadium in Kayseri, but this time they represented joy.

A Mohammed Hameed save, a successful Shakor penalty and Iraq had created history, reaching their first ever semi-final appearance of a Fifa tournament.

Iraqi footballers, of all ages, continue to defy odds.

In the 1970s and '80s, Iraq produced one great team after another, qualifying for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. For a nation that has had to deal with logistical obstacles as much as internal tragedies, its international teams have consistently punched above their weight.

In 2000, the Under 19s won the Asian Cup, beating Iran in the final. And, gloriously, Iraq's senior national team won the 2007 Asian Cup in the midst of one of the country's darkest periods. In what some Iraqis call the "Miracle of Jakarta", a team made up of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final, unifying, if fleetingly, a fractured nation.

Today, the football world is once again taking notice. As so often in the past, they now also carry the hopes of the Arab world.

Their U20 World Cup campaign had already seen a dramatic journey. Seconds away from losing to England in the opening match, they managed to snatch a well-deserved 2-2 draw. Two 2-1 wins followed, against Egypt and Chile, before Wednesday's win over Paraguay in the round of 16.

Then came Sunday's ultimate catharsis.

Whatever happens now, the campaign has been a success for Iraq.

Already they have surpassed their best performance at this level, which was exit at the quarter-final stage in 1989.

Perhaps most tantalising of all is what this group of players can achieve in the future. The 2015 Asian Cup in Australia may come just a little soon for this group, but Iraqi supporters will be licking their lips at the prospect of Hameed, Shakor, Ali Fayez and the wonderful Ali Adnan playing at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The future will have to wait. Next up are Uruguay, conquerors of Spain, in the semi-finals.

Win or lose, Iraq's latest golden crop will write yet another chapter in one of football's most unlikely, and remarkable stories.

Winning the U20 World Cup remains a formidable challenge, as indeed does reaching the final. But considering their record of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, it would take a very brave fan to bet against the young Lions of Mesopotamia now.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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