Iraq ready to play role of dragon slayer in tale of two teams

Author: Gary MeenaghanSat, 2017-10-14 03:00ID: 1507928109885634800KOLKATA: History is filled with tales of underdogs rising to achieve incredible feats. Whether it is Dawud and Jalut or David and Goliath, the moral is the same: Courage and belief can defeat even the grandest adversary.In the contemporary story of George and the Dragon, which is believed to have origins in the Middle East, a chivalrous knight slays a huge monster. The fable was embraced by England, who adopted the valiant young warrior as their patron saint, but modern England is for all intents and purposes the dragon in today’s tale. The country’s under-17 football team, filled with academy starlets from the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, will contest their final group match of the FIFA U-17 World Cup tonight against an Iraq side operating on a shoestring budget. Professionalism and preparations could hardly be more different; the disparity in developmental infrastructure unmistakable.England prepared at their £120 million ($159 million) St. George’s Park training ground, which features among other things 12 world-class pitches, a full-size indoor pitch, hydrotherapy suites, video-analysis studios, and even a treadmill designed by NASA. They played warm-up matches against Brazil and South Africa and arrived in India after a summer that coach Steve Cooper called “probably the most successful we’ve ever had in the development teams.”There is no probably about it. While Cooper’s U17s lost on penalties in the final of their European Championships, the U19s triumphed at their continental tournament, the U20s won their World Cup, and the U21s reached the semis of their age-group Euros. Such is the strength in depth of Cooper’s squad, for the past two games in India — victories over Chile and Mexico — Angel Gomes has started on the bench, despite the midfielder having already made his Premier League debut under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. Iraq, in contrast, don’t have a single professional player in their squad, which is entirely made up of home-based players, and were until June prohibited by FIFA from hosting home internationals because of the instability in the country. Since the ban was lifted, they managed to play in friendlies against the likes of Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. “You can’t compare the investment, the infrastructure or the preparations of England to us,” Iraq coach Qahtan Al-Rubaye told Arab News. “You cannot compare the players, who are playing for professional clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, to Iraqi clubs. Our training facilities at home are not so good, not very organized or of a high standard. We tried our best, but I wish we had had a training camp in Europe to play against stronger teams. Regrettably, it was not possible because of our financial situation.”While England will be looking to carry their developmental success through to future senior teams, Iraq’s surprise success at the 2007 Asian Cup could have been expected to eventually see finances filter down to the youth teams. Younus Mahmoud’s header in the final 10 years ago brought festivities and firecrackers to the streets of Baghdad, but they did not last long and civil war and social unrest soon returned, rendering investment impossible.“Our country suffered from wars since the 1980s, which impacted the development of academies,” said Al-Rubaye. “Since the US-led invasion in 2003 and terror attacks that followed, the turmoil in Iraq has made it impossible to accomplish anything as all the efforts were focused on the security situation. The security situation is now better than before, so I hope the development will improve in the near future.”Iraq’s great hope is Mohammad Dawood, a pacy and tireless forward who finished top-scorer and was named the best player as his country unexpectedly won the U16 Asian Championships last summer. Although yet to celebrate his 17th birthday, he has already broken into the first-team at Baghdad’s Al-Naft SC, where he scored nine goals in last season’s Iraqi Premier League. In India, he has scored three goals in two games — Iraq drew against Mexico and beat Chile — and is not approaching England with an inferiority complex.“Of course, we all wish that we had the same facilities and the development opportunities English players have, but it doesn’t mean that we stop and do nothing,” said Dawood. “It will instead push me to be a better player and try even harder. We are the champions of Asia, so we can be confident that if we play well and as a team we can get the result we want.”Dawood is regarded as one of world youth football’s brightest prospects, but he knows that, unlike England’s players, he must leave his home country if he is to continue his footballing education. With dreams to play for one of Europe’s big clubs — he cites Cristiano Ronaldo as his footballing hero — he says he is “ready to move and my family support me.”Al-Rubaye usually prefers to focus on his team rather than individuals, but even he could not resist stressing the importance of his young star making the switch to Europe sooner rather than later.“It would be a huge step for Mohammad to play in Europe and benefit from the high standards and professionalism,” he said. “We have had many talented players in Iraq in years gone by, but without the proper care we lost them all. I am sure though that if Mohammad is to play for a club in Europe you will be looking at the new star of Iraqi football.”Tonight in Kolkata, Dawood will get his first chance to show his talents against European opposition. England coach Cooper is aware of the Iraqi forward’s pace, but insists he will prepare no different to how he did for their previous games at this tournament. If Dawood can capitalize on that, there is a dragon waiting to be slain.
Main category: Sports

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