Iraq ready for Asian Cup renaissance

DOHA - Iraqi Football Association President Hussain Saeed was in search of faith ahead of the 2011 Asian Cup draw in Doha on Friday.

After being banished to the footballing wilderness for a brief but worrying spell by the sport's world governing body FIFA, the defending continental champions are back in the Asian football fold and preparing to defend their title.

"Let us speak after prayers," said Saeed, after being woken by the ringing telephone in his five-star hotel room.

The Arabian peninsula might be obsessed with football - Qatar is also making a bold bid to host the 2022 World Cup - but not even anxiety over being drawn into an Asian Cup group of death could distract the faithful from the muezzin's call to Friday Prayers here.

Fortified by worship and late breakfast, Saeed and national coach Nadhim Shakir were prepared to talk football - and tackle the issue of rebuilding the national side after the prolonged and politically-induced chaos that ended with a four-month blanket ban from international competitions last year.

"It is not going to be easy to retain the Asian Cup title. As you know, there have been some matters in Iraqi football and we had to stop everything," said Saeed.

In May 2008, the then Baghdad government crossed FIFA's forbidden threshold and interfered in footballing matters, dissolving the national Olympic Committee and with it the national team.

FIFA slapped sanctions on the Iraqi FA in November 2009 and banned all its national football teams from international competition.

After several months of discussions, hand wringing, pleas and promises by Saeed, FIFA opened its arms and welcomed back the Lions of Mesopotamia in March.


Politics have long dogged the country's most popular sport.

The team slid from its 1970s and 1980s glory days - which saw a 1986 World Cup showing and three Olympic berths - into what many describe of the Dark Generation of the 1990s.

The ruthless son of former dictator Saddam Hussein, Uday, was appointed head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and with it, the national football team.

His motivational techniques included threats of amputation while losses or missed penalties resulted in the flogging of players' feet with thorn bush branches.

Yet politics remains central to Iraq's future success, conceded Saeed and Shakir as they waited for the draw to find out who they will face when they defend their prized silverware at next January's 22-day quadrennial tournament in Doha.

"We have the spirit, and even though my experienced players are scattered across the region's professional leagues, we are united," said Shakir.

"But we don't have any finances. We don't have proper infrastructure nor do we even have enough trained coaches," he said, his face etched with anxiety as he described the polling station recounts and controversy surrounding the recent general election back in his troubled homeland.

"We hope the government will be formed sooner rather than later, and we get the support and financial backing for upcoming tournaments," he added.

The 2007 Asian Cup win kicked some much needed cheer and pride into the hearts of war-weary Iraqi football fans.

Yet despite a return to international competitions, the hurt pride caused by the FIFA ban and the prospect of an uncertain future have bred a lack of confidence into what was until recently, one of the region's football powerhouses.

"It's more difficult to defend the title than win it," said Saeed.

"We are still trying to establish a government and we need someone in this new government to give us proper backing and funding," he said.

"But we are optimistic and will do our best. Technically we are strong and we are a committed team, and I am confident.

"But this is not enough. Politics sometimes badly affects society and sport, so I hope the new government can be sorted out soon."

Iraq are seeded second behind hosts Qatar in the 16-team tournament and are 81st in FIFA's world rankings.

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