Ahmed Yasin represents a lot of what is good and lot of what’s not about football in Iraq.
The 21 year old is part of the new wave of Iraqi footballers breaking into the national team and while he may not yet be a household name, he’s just the kind of player who could cause Australia major problems in Wednesday morning’s (AEDT) 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Doha.
Lighting quick, not afraid to run at players and with a good cross and shot, he could turn out to be the wildcard in a match that is vital for both nations’ hopes of reaching the finals in Brazil.
The story of how he came to play for Iraq, though, reflects the shambles that the nation finds itself in.
After the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf War in the 1980s and early 1990s respectively, there were thousands of families that fled the country looking for a better life abroad. Many found their way to nations where football was a way of connecting with their new communities.
The Iraq Football Association made no concerted effort to track down any of these players - who were showing promise - and after years of frustration with youth development, a handful of expats took it upon themselves to do the IFA’s scouting work for them.
Led by an engineer living in Germany, a variety of other “football fans” and a supermarket worker from the north of Iraq, this group spent many months trawling the lower leagues of Europe, talking and watching to anyone with an Iraqi background.
They complied a dossier with scouting reports and contacts of almost 50 players, which they passed to IFA officials in late 2010.
Nine of those players were called up by then coach Wolfgang Sidka to a training camp after the Asian Cup – including a young Ahmed Yasin, who left Iraq as an infant to move to Sweden with his parents.
Rumours of friction between the ‘old guard’ of Iraqi football – the 2007 Asian Cup winning team – and the newcomers emanated from the camp, including and that they were shunned and left to themselves both at training and in the team hotel.
Subsequently only one, Osama Rashid, was called up to further camps under Sidka’s watch, but when Zico took the reigns in late 2011 things started to change.
There have been whispers for many years about the influence of the core group of senior players with leading IFA officials, with some even suggesting there are payments from player to official to ensure continued selection.
There’s also little doubt that several elements within the IFA are also involved in the game for the wrong reasons.
Zico, for example, made his thoughts clear on why the side was forced to prepare for the Socceroos match by travelling to Sweden to play Brazil in a lead-up game.
“It was because the federation wanted it, what can I do? But it’s 6 degrees in Sweden and 40 here in Doha…it makes things difficult,” he said.
What Zico has done though, is to arrive with a broom unsullied by elements of the past; he invited more of the ‘Sidka Nine’ into camp and German-based defender David Haidar, Rashid and Yasin are all involved in this current squad.
He also refused to both allow federation officials to select players (as had been a long-standing practice), and to accept the over-riding influence of the senior playing group and immediately instilled a more professional approach to game preparation, yet he couldn’t completely eradicate some of the more problematic elements in the IFA.
The nadir was reached last month in East Asia.
An away trip to face Japan was always going to be the most difficult in the section and Zico wanted an extended training camp in Korea to prepare.
When he arrived and found a large group of younger, domestic-based players and none of his professionals playing in the Gulf, he wanted answers.
Officials mumbled something about the match-date meaning the players could only be called up three days beforehand and a heated exchange ensued in which each side blamed the other.
The upside was that with the senior players arriving ‘late’ into camp, he made the unprecedented decision to drop the lot of them, making 10 changes to his side.
Leading stars Younis Mahmoud (the captain), Nashat Akram, Karrar Jassim and Qusay Munir all started on the bench as a youthful side was unfortunate to lose 1-0 to the powerful Asian champion.
That most were recalled for the Brazil match and will start against Australia speaks of a mild rapprochement, and after having spent time at Iraq’s team hotel during the past week, it’s clear the two parties don’t see eye-to-eye.
Zico this week repeated his astonishing claim that he hasn’t been paid for five-and-a-half months - a claim the federation rejects - and should Iraq lose to the Socceroos, his future is far from certain.
A troubled week was made worse by, firstly, an injury to regular left fullback Bassim Abbas and then the shock - and acrimonious - retirement of Qusay. The veteran midfielder left camp in annoyance at being overlooked by Zico and subsequently announced his immediate retirement.
Despite all these troubles there has been the usual air of joviality that is common at Iraqi camps, and I’ve seen a great many of them first hand.
What’s more, Zico was emboldened by the success of the younger players and several will start on Wednesday morning (AEDT).
Goalkeeper Noor Sabri was a standout (as strange as that seems) in the heavy loss to Brazil, but he has a four-man defensive line in front of him that is not always consistent, although 20-year-old Erbil defender Ahmad Ibrahim is a highly-rated prospect.
The deeper midfielders, Khaldoon Ibrahim and Muthana Khalid, will sit behind the advanced midfield three, which is where Iraq’s real strength lies.
Yasin on the left and the equally exciting 18-year-old Hammadi Ahmad will give the side width, but the main creator will be the laconic Nashat Akram, on his day one of Asia’s finest players.
The captain – and the lone out-and-out forward – Younis Mahmoud, is perhaps not the player he once was, but is still a real threat, both in the air and on the ground.
And with young talents such as Amjad Radhi and Alaa Abdul-Zahra to come off the bench, this remains a seriously good Iraqi side.
If only the politics could be sorted out.
FIFA World Cup
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has dismissed the possibility of his side winning the 2014 FIFA World Cup.