KOLKATA: A Google search on Iraq will throw up around 1,000 news items, mostly on the country’s continuing struggles against the Islamic State, civil war and militancy. Amidst this backdrop, the U-17 Iraq team not only wants to change perceptions, but also to win hearts.
The ‘Lions of Mesopotamia’ practised at SAI centre on Friday. The teenagers could be seen shouting and joking, a far cry from the situation at home. Football remains an escape from the daily dose of violence.
According to midfielder Saif Khalid, Bollywood is a welcome relief back home.
“Films help us escape from the harsh realities. We have a channel which provides dubbed versions of Bollywood flicks and we enjoy watching them as a group.” He rattled off a few famous names like Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai with a child-like innocence on his face. “I loved Raees. That’s the last Hindi movie I saw.”
It’s not all fun and games, though. They feel that football can help unite the country and they want to do their bit. “Football is the most popular game in the country and people follow it with a lot of passion. The 2007 AFC Asian Cup triumph helped unite the people and that is something we are looking to do.”
The team qualified for the U-17 World Cup after winning the AFC U-16 Championship in Goa last year, under the tutelage of Qahtan Jathir. They defied expectations, and that’s something they hope to do again.
That tournament also brought into the limelight a precociously talented Mohammad Dawood, who failed to score in the first two matches before taking the tournament by storm. He scored a hat-trick against two-time champions Japan before going on to win the goal-scorer as well as best-player awards. Since then, he has been marked as a future star with European clubs keeping a tab on him.
“I can’t take credit for what I have done. Without my coaches and teammates, this wouldn’t have been possible,” Dawood said. Having played in India before, Dawood reckons it will hold them in good stead. “We had only 30-45 days of practice at home before flying to Jordan. But we have played here, so we are aware of the conditions.” He hoped for FIFA to end the ban wherein Iraq are unable to host matches. Even the seniors play home matches in Iran’s capital, Tehran.
Iraq’s only entry in this event ended on frustratingly in 2013, as they finished last in their group. This time they are in Group F, the Group of Death, with European U-17 runners-up England, South American runners-up Chile and CONCACAF winners Mexico. The Lions of Mesopotamia have to go for the kill!