x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Fight to the finish for Iraq and Egypt in U20 World Cup

All to play for as the two teams from the Middle East go head to head in Turkey, writes Ali Khaled.

Iraq's Ali Faez celebrates with Mohamed Jabba Arebat after scoring against England.
Iraq's Ali Faez celebrates with Mohamed Jabba Arebat after scoring against England.

For the shattered youngsters, the heart-break was almost to much to take. On November 17, Iraq's Under 19 football team had been seconds away from being crowned Asian Champions at Emirates Club stadium in Ras Al Khaimah, when South Korea forced an equaliser, and extra time.

Less than 45 minutes later, they were on their knees in despair after the Koreans completed a 4-1 win on penalties.

There was a consolation, however. Finishing runners-up ensured Iraq's participation in the Fifa 2013 Under 20 World Cup, currently taking place in Turkey.

The experience seems to have made the team, and manager, stronger. In their opening match on Sunday evening, the young Iraqis did to England what South Korea had done to them.

Trailing 2-0 with 15 minutes remaining, Iraq completed a remarkable comeback with a penalty from Ali Fayez and an injury-time equaliser from Ali Adnan. Such was their performance in the end that, despite the late reprieve, a draw was greeted with disappointment by some of their more demanding fans.

For that they can thank the astute leadership of coach Hakeem Shaker, a man whose influence on Iraqi football in the last few years has been inescapable.

At one point late last year, the 50-year-old former Iraq international was, uniquely, in charge of the country's Olympic, youth and senior teams.

Having taken over from the departed Brazilian Zico at short notice last November, first as interim manager and then at the end of the year as full-time coach, Shaker's stint with the senior side lasted barely two months.

In that time, he still managed to lead Iraq to the final of the 2013 Gulf Cup, in Bahrain, eventually going down 2-1 to Mahdi Ali's UAE after extra time.

Despite laving left his post at senior level in February there has been constant speculation in the Iraqi media of an imminent return.

Shaker was quoted in the Iraqi press allegedly saying he has signed to coach the seniors and youth sides until 2015, forcing the country's football federation at the start of June to deny the story.

"News that the federation signed with coach Hakeem Shaker to supervise both the youth and the national team is far from true," federation official Kamel Zghir told Alsumaria, an Iraqi satellite channel, adding that any such contract would be "unreasonable".

"The federation will not allow for one coach to train both teams since it will greatly affect players' performance," he added.

It was a wise and decisive move by the Iraqi officials, and a blessing for Shaker himself.

Without the external distractions and pressures that come with the senior job, Shaker has been able to focus all his attention on the Under 20 side, and the benefits are there for all to see. If the performance against England is any indication they could yet add to their impressive list of achievements at youth tournaments. Iraq has won the Asian Under 19 title on five occasions, in addition to finishing runners-up in Ras Al Khaimah last year. In 1989, they also reached the quarter-finals of the Fifa Under 20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia.

It is that pedigree that the current generation is aspiring to.

Echoing Mahdi Ali's work with UAE's age groups, Shaker's calming influence, and attacking tactics, were evident against England. At 2-0 down, the match seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be over for Iraq. But there was no panic.

The players, several of them already senior internationals, dug deep and showed commendable spirit to snatch a point that could prove to be a lifeline in their efforts to qualify to the knockout stages. Adnan was excellent, scoring and clearing off his own goal-line. Forward Mohannad Abdul-Raheem troubled the English defence throughout and goalkeeper Mohammed Hameed kept Iraq in the game with several fine saves, especially in the first half.

Now, all eyes are on Wednesday's Arab summit with Egypt at the Akdeniz University Stadium in Antalya.

Al Jazeera Sport's commentary team may have lamented the fact that Egypt and Iraq had ended up in the same group, reducing the chances of Arab success in the tournament, but Shaker, and indeed his counterpart Rabie Yassin, are unlikely to have any time for this kind of rhetoric.

Each will know that a win on Wednesday, apart from boosting their own hopes of making the round of 16, potentially will deal a fatal blow to the opposition's chances of progressing.

Egypt will certainly be aggrieved to have lost 2-1 to Chile, who finished the match with 10 men having had a player sent off, but they remain a formidable opponent. Still, the young Lions of Mesopotamia should have the edge. Confidence will be high after the England result, and Shaker will demand more of the same against Iraq.

Once the pleasantries are out of the way, expect little in the way of brotherly love in Antalya on Wednesday night.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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