x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The 'best' football side in the world? It's Iraq ...

Statistical analysis reveals hidden truths about certain soccer-playing countries, who are the real over-achievers and, yes, why England continue to disappoint .

Football fans following today's Asian Cup matches in Qatar probably don't know it, but they will be watching what could be one of the best football nations on earth.

You would be forgiven for wondering whether Spain, Germany and Brazil, the world's true football superpowers, have joined the Asian Football Association. In fact, the secret is in the statistics.

"Lies, damn lies and statistics," the old saying goes, and no sport has resisted categorisation by numbers as much as football. Purists have often argued that the beautiful game is far too romantic, fluid and unique to be explained, or even constrained, by dreary statistics.

But as football has exponentially developed into a science on the pitch and, perhaps more importantly, a global business off it, the tide has began to turn over the past two decades. One of the best examples of this new acceptance of statistics came in the shape of a book published in 2009, Why England Lose, by the noted football writer Simon Kuper and the sports economist Stefan Szymanski.

Drawing on books like Freakonomics and the revered American sports tome Moneyball, this new book uses statistical analysis to decode footballing trends over the past 100 years, reveal hidden truths about certain countries and, yes, show why England continue to disappoint at major tournaments. By incorporating factors that include history, wealth and size of population, the book offers an often fascinating, although sometimes hardly watertight, set of observations.

Brazilian and German dominance over the years is congruous with their footballing history, high GDPs and population sizes. Strangely, other seemingly successful countries are shown to have underachieved considering their resources, including France, Italy and the Netherlands. For the record, the England team, despite the hysterical tabloid press, turn out to be slightly overachieving.

Then there is the book's surprising conclusion. On paper, according to the two authors, the most overachieving, and so, in relative terms, "best" football nation in the world is none other than Iraq.

Football, however, is played on grass, not paper. But remarkably, Iraq, the reigning Asian Champions, have in the last 30 years consistently produced excellent results despite enduring some of the most turbulent political times and crushing economic conditions that are possible: the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War, the Iraq War and Saddam Hussein's oppressive rule.

In 2004, Iraq reached the semi-finals at the Athens Olympics. In 2007, as war raged, the Lions of Mesopotamia pulled off an incredible triumph in the Asian Cup, beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final in Jakarta.

"It was singularly the most romantic against-the-odds sporting story of recent times; of a team who had overcome huge odds and won Asia's biggest prize against a background of bloodshed and chaos," wrote James Montague, a football journalist formerly based in Dubai and author of When Friday Comes: Football in the Warzone.

These triumphs were achieved against mostly Asian teams, rather than the world's top football nations. Kuper and Szymanski's corrective methods, however, drag Iraq to the very top of the table, in theory at least.

Tonight, Iraq will kick off the defence of their title against another potential regional giant, Iran. Considering its natural resources, population size and relatively strong football heritage, it is tempting to wonder how far Iran would progress if sanctions were lifted.

But a small population and success are not mutually exclusive. In 1990, only 18 years after its founding, the UAE became one of the smallest countries ever to qualify for the World Cup. The country's national team, drawn from a population of about 1.5 million (very few of whom were eligible for selection), memorably overcame the world's most populous nation, China. The UAE, led by arguably its greatest player ever, Adnan al Taliani, had its own golden generation. It was a testament to what can be achieved with good planning and investment, regardless of the size of the talent pool.

Political turmoil continues to plague Iraq. The next few weeks will reveal whether their national team, a symbol of unity that contains Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, can replicate 2007's stunning win. If they do, it would once again have been against massive odds.

"If Iraq ever becomes a halfway normal country, then watch out Brazil," Kuper and Szymanski warn tantalisingly.

And to think, people say politics and sports don't mix.

akhaled@thenational.ae