Iraq begin Asian Cup defence against Iran

DOHA - War-ravaged Iraq scored one of sport's unlikely successes when they won the Asian Cup four years ago and it would be almost as big a surprise if they retained the trophy after kicking off against Iran on Tuesday.

A meeting between Iran and Iraq naturally evokes memories of their 1980-88 war but both camps were eager to emphasise the sporting aspect of their rivalry on Monday.

Waleed Tabra, Iraq's general manager, said that none of the players or coaching staff would be thinking of anything other than winning the match.

Tabra told Reuters: "Iran and Iraq are friendly neighbours. We have a shared border, a deep history and relationship that goes back centuries.

"We have the same religions, Iranians marry Iraqis, Iraqis marry Iranians, it's good for the two countries.

"But football is something different, it's competitive. We are playing to win, they are playing to win. It has nothing to do with what happened in the 1980s.

"We have played against Iran for decades, we are rivals on the field. Nobody mentions the war now, it was beyond the reach of most people, it is history now."

Iran's eloquent coach Afshin Ghotbi, who has vowed to bring the Asian Cup title back to Iran for the first time since 1976 added: "What makes football the number one sport in the world is because it brings people together, and I hope the Iran-Iraq match is an opportunity for the Iranian and Iraqi people to mend hearts and be friends."

BOLD PROMISE

Ghotbi, with a twinkle in his eye, was also little less diplomatic, in a purely football sense at least, ahead of their opening Group D meeting at the Al Rayyan stadium on Tuesday.

"Iran is going to end their 35-year title drought," he declared.

"For a country like Iran, with such a history, we always aim to win the championship. We are well prepared for our match against Iraq and we will qualify for the knockout stages."

That is a brave claim. Iran may have won three Asian Cup titles, but they were long ago in 1968, 1972 and 1976 and Group D also contains World Cup finalists North Korea and an emerging United Arab Emirates side.

Ghotbi, who worked as one of Guus Hiddink's assistants when South Korea reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002, oozed confidence.

"Iraq are the defending champions, but we beat them in the West Asian championship six months ago, and although it will be tricky, we can beat them again."

"It is not going to be easy, but I have confidence in my team and if you are the coach of Iran, you have to believe you are going to win the competition."

Iraq's vastly experienced German coach Wolfgang Sidka, the latest in a number of coaches trying to bring stability to Iraq after they were banned twice by FIFA for organisational problems, was a little less positive about his team's chances.

Sidka, who looks like Virgin boss Richard Branson without the beard, told reporters: "First of all, the opening match against Iran is going to be a very tough.

"It's a derby, but we are well prepared. But as far as looking into the future, to the end of the tournament, I am not going to do that."


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