The rise of football in the Middle East

Waleed Salem Al-Lami (back) of Iraq in action against Omar Abdulrahman (front) of the UAE during the AFC Asian Cup 2015 third place soccer match at Hunter Stadium in Newcastle, Australia

MENTION Iraq and people relate the country to weapons of mass destruction, the late Saddam Hussein, the American invasion of 2003 and now, the Islamic State (IS).

So many problems and yet, there is a light in that darkness in terms of football.

The growth of Iraq’s football is surely something to marvel at.

They train in insecure conditions and there is a distinct lack of football infrastructure and yet, the country won the 2007 AFC Asian Cup and finished fourth in this year’s edition.

Whenever the national team plays, the whole nation is glued to the television, and instead of talking about bombs and insurgencies; they shout for goals, fouls and penalties!

My colleague recently shared a YouTube video of young kids training at the Ammo Baba School of Football for Children in Baghdad and I was amazed with what I saw.

The pitch was bad, with sand all over, but the enthusiasm shown by the kids was immense.

The future certainly looks bright for Iraqi football even though the country is still plagued with internal conflicts.

The late Ammo Baba is a legend in Iraqi football and the fact that he has opened a school shows how much he loves his country and the game.

Now, thanks to the national team’s success, there are more “Ammo Babas”.

Younis Mahmoud, Nashat Akram, Hawa Mulla Mohammed and Qusay Munir were the heroes in 2007 while in 2014, Mahmoud, at 35, together with Yaser Kasim starred for the team in Australia.

These players are based in many countries, but when it comes to national duty, they give their all for Iraq.

Kasim has been based in England since 2007, and plying his trade with Swindon Town since 2013. But  before that he was training in the streets of Baghdad.

If Iraq is grappling with problems, UAE, on the other end of the spectrum, with its riches and resources have also improved a lot in the last few years.

At the recent Asian Cup, UAE beat Iraq in a thrilling 3rd-4th placing match, gaining recognition after beating Japan in the quarterfinals.

Ismail Matar used to be the main man for Al-Abyad (The Whites) but recently, two young players have risen up and helped make UAE noticed.

Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout were the standouts in the recent tournament and both of them have years ahead of them.

Mabkhout, 24, bagged the Golden Boot Award by scoring five goals in six games while Abdulrahman, 23, orchestrated the midfield with his brilliant vision and movement.

Both these players have been tipped to play in Europe and many at home are urging them make the break and make themselves counted in world football.

Mabkhout and Abdulrahman came from the Al Jazira and Al Ain youth academies respectively and it shows that grassroots development in UAE has improved. 

Clubs there are beginning to invest in the future instead of just concentrating on bringing in established foreign players.

What can we learn from these two countries?

Instead of mocking Arabian football commentary, which can be overzealous at times, we should start looking at our own problems and come up with ways to emulate the Middle East nations.

Malaysia has the infrastructure but we usually, fail to maintain it.

We have academies but the national body does not have a seamless plan to assimilate these youngsters into top-level football.

We have professional players but many are not exhibiting the professionalism that is needed.

We have good coaches but teams here do not seem to value stability and sack at will when results do not come their way.

If we can fix all this, mark my words, things will surely change and we can be an example to these countries in the near future.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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Football , Middle East , Iraq , UAE


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