Reuters—Sporting success is an effective relief for any war-torn nation and Iraq, caught in a bloody war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, will be seeking more respite when they launch their campaign for a second Asian Cup title in Australia.
The Lions of Mesopotamia sent shockwaves around the globe with their triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup, beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final courtesy of Younus Mahmood’s 73rd minute header.
Mahmoud, 31, has been without a club for more than one year but head coach Radhi Shenaishil has brought back the talismanic striker, injecting vital experience to a young side who begin their Group D campaign against Jordan in Brisbane on January 12.
The veteran forward represented Iraq’s mainly under-23 side at the Asian Games in September, where his four goals helped them win the bronze medal in South Korea.
The former champions secured their sixth consecutive finals appearance on the final day of qualifying before being drawn in a group which also contains four-time winners Japan and AFC Challenge Cup winners Palestine.
Iraq’s build-up for the tournament has been far from smooth. They lost 2-0 to Peru in September, followed by their winless Gulf Cup of Nations campaign, which led to the sacking of head coach Haskim Shakir.
Qatar Sports Club (QSC) allowed head coach Shenaishil a leave of absence last month to take charge of the Iraq team, which includes talented Swindon Town midfielder Yaser Kasim, American-born Colombus Crew forward Justin Meram and 18-year-old playmaker Humam Tariq.
Four years after their quarter-final exit in extra time when Harry Kewell netted a late winner for eventual finalists Australia, Iraq will be banking on their rich pool of talented youngsters to advance further this time around.
One of them will be 21-year-old attack-minded full-back Ali Adnan, who was named the Asian Young Footballer of the Year in 2013.
Iraq underlined their riches of youth talent by finishing third at the 2013 FIFA under-20 World Cup in Turkey and winning the inaugural AFC under-22 Championship early last year.
From the golden generation of 2007, Sydney FC midfielder Ali Abbas missed out on a place in the squad with a serious knee injury.
Shenaishil has, predictably, packed his squad with nine players from defending Iraqi Premier League champions Al-Shorta and would be hoping his young team can bring a smile back to the faces of the country’s fans.