The 12th man: Iraq and Syria's chances at World Cup 2022 qualification
It was 1986 when Iraq appeared at the World Cup for the first and, to date, only time. Those weeks in Mexico have been subsequently overshadowed to an extent by the fact that Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, was in charge and physically abused the players.
Iraq has been desperate to return to the global stage since. The failure of its efforts to do so is, however, indirectly connected to the dictator who was deposed in 2003.
The ensuing security situation in the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 has meant that the national team has been unable to play competitive international home games on home soil with Jordan, Iran and Qatar standing in at times.
"Other teams are likely to have to deal with playing on neutral soil and this is something that is already familiar to players from Baghdad and Damascus"
There was a 2014 World Cup qualifier against Jordan in 2011 that was held in the Kurdistan city of Erbil that did not go as smoothly with overcrowding reported as well as an in-game power cut.
The final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup started on Septermber 2. The 12 Asian teams that have made it this far have been split into two groups of six. The top two from each group qualify automatically while the two that finish in third have to play off against each other and then a team from another continent. Iraq’s first game is against South Korea in Seoul and then there are games against Iran, United Arab Emirates, Syria and Lebanon.
Qatar 2022 is within touching distance and all 12 teams will do whatever they can to get there. In July, the Iraq Football Association (IFA) appointed famous Dutch coach Dick Advocaat to lead the team through the third round.
While details about the contract remain undisclosed, it is reported that the three-time coach of the Netherlands national team will receive a salary close to $2 million. If he is successful and leads the Lions of Mesopotamia to Qatar then Iraq will earn many times more in prize money, appearance fees and sponsorship contracts.
Hiring world-famous coaches can help but home advantage can be even more valuable with 52 percent of 2022 qualifiers played so far in Asia having been won by home teams, compared to a 35 percent ratio for away teams. Basically, teams have a 50 percent higher chance of winning if they are at home.
It comes as no surprise then that the IFA has been working hard behind the scenes to be granted permission to play qualifiers at home. It arranged friendly games in Basra against Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan earlier this year but what Iraq really want are World Cup qualifiers at home.
The request was denied and earlier in August, FIFA wrote to Iraq after working with an independent risk assessment agency. The assessments, it said, “have brought to light a very high-risk alert situation in Iraq at the moment…. For the time being, it will not be possible for Iraq to host its September home match of the third qualifying round in Iraq.” FIFA also warned Iraq to provisionally plan to host three more games in October and November abroad.
Iraqi journalist Hassanin Mubarak was not alone in being disappointed. “I do think Iraq should be able to host home games, the situation in Iraq isn’t perfect by any means, though you can say this for many other countries around the world but they continue to be allowed to play matches at home by FIFA,” Mubarak told The New Arab. “The Iraqi League has played this season without any issues and Iraq hosted three friendlies in the city of Basra with no problems.”
It is not just Iraq. Syria, which has never made it to the World Cup, has also been unable to play at home since the country plunged into war in 2011. Even with playing qualifiers in Qatar, Jordan and Malaysia, the team almost qualified for Russia 2018 by finishing in third place and narrowly losing to Australia in a two-legged play-off. In normal circumstances, playing in Damascus and being roared on by a capacity crowd could have made the difference between losing and winning.
"Nobody welcomes the global pandemic but it may well level the playing field somewhat"
The home advantage comes from not only having tens of thousands of fans inside a stadium but not needing to travel, the familiarity of the facilities and accommodation. “Our home game in September will be away, and that’s a significant sporting disadvantage,” James Johnson, chief executive of Football Federation Australia said recently. “If you look at home records versus away records at this level, home records count for a hell of a lot – it’s an extra player on the pitch.”
The reason Australia is talking about home advantage may be of benefit to Iraq as well as Syria. Australia’s travel restrictions mean that their home games in September, October and November will be played in Qatar. If other teams follow suit in Group A – as may well happen – Iraq and Syria’s situation will no longer be such a disadvantage. It will become something approaching the norm.
Nobody welcomes the global pandemic but it may well level the playing field somewhat. In Group B, China is looking into playing all four of their home games this year in Qatar and will base their squad in that country from September to November. Not being able to play in front of 50,000 fans in Xian or taking a tough opponent to the altitude of the relatively hard to get to of Kunming, damages Chinese chances.
Iraq and Syria are in Group A. COVID-19 may mean they don’t have to go to Tehran, or if they do, there may not be 100,000 passionate and hostile home fans to deal with.
Other teams are likely to have to deal with playing on neutral soil and this is something that is already familiar to players from Baghdad and Damascus. COVID disruptions will be more damaging to other teams and will increase Iraq and Syria’s chances of making it to Qatar.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden