DOHA (AFP) – Iraq stormed to shock Asian Cup glory in 2007 against the backdrop of war, but they will have to spring another major upset if they are to repeat the emotional feat in Qatar.
The Iraqi team made headlines worldwide and were welcomed home as heroes after they defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Jakarta four years ago to momentarily take the spotlight off the violence in their war-ravaged country.
But they face a stiff task to even make it to the knock-out stages this time after they were drawn in a highly competitive Group D that also includes arch rivals Iran, World Cup finalists North Korea and United Arab Emirates.
Experienced coach Wolfgang Sidka, who has only been in the job since the summer, has kept the bulk of the squad that brought Iraq its greatest ever football triumph, complemented by a sprinkling of young prospects.
However, it remains to be seen if the former Werder Bremen coach has had enough time to get his footballing philosophy across to his charges and they are not among the favourites in Qatar.
Sidka is making no promises.
“I think we should try to do it (win the tournament) again,” said the German, who has extensive coaching experience in the region.
“But first we have the match with Iran — and that¡¯s our neighbours and our rivals — and then our target is to reach the quarter-finals.
“We have a tough group also with North Korea, who played at the World Cup, and also UAE, who played well at the Gulf Cup even though they were missing a lot of players, so let¡¯s see.
“We¡¯ll try to reach the quarter-finals and then we will see.”
Dogged striker Younis Mahmoud, who scored the 71st-minute winner in the final four years ago, remains central to Iraq’s hopes and is their talisman.
Nashat Akram, a clever and cultured midfielder, is also a pivotal figure that will need to be on top form if Iraq are to make it out of the group and beyond.
“What I have always said from the beginning is that we should improve step by step,” said Sidka, who believes up to 10 sides are capable of winning the Asian Cup.
“We are trying to do better and we know this is a very tough competition. Maybe from 16 teams, 10 are able to get the Asian Cup.”
Sidka’s men start the defence of their Asian Cup crown on January 11 at the Al Rayyan Stadium against traditional heavyweights Iran in what promises to be a tasty showdown between the neighbours and rivals.
Iraq play UAE four days later and North Korea on January 19.
Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi, who believes Group D is the toughest at the tournament, expects Iraq to be a significant threat.
“Iraq are coming here as champions and they have the confidence that comes with being champions and they have enough of the quality players who helped them achieve that championship still with the team,” he said.
But Iraq’s build-up has not been outstanding and there is a general feeling that the team peaked in 2007.
A series of friendlies against regional rivals in November and December have shown few signs Iraq are capable of another shock — but Sidka’s side appear to revel under the “underdog” tag.