The article was originally published on Soccer Iraq.
In 2004, the footballing world stood and took notice of Iraq as they participated in their fourth Olympic games. Entering the competition as real underdogs the Lions were expected to be knocked out early in the group stage due to failure of making a mark internationally. As well as not reaching a global tournament since the late eighties (World Cup 1986 & Olympic Games 1988), Iraq’s Olympic track record was not the prettiest either. One medal – Bronze, weightlifting in Rome 1960. However Athens 2004 really did put Iraq on the map as an odd defying campaign saw Adnan Hamad’s men inches away from an astonishing Olympic final. A defeat to Paraguay in the semis ended all hopes but convincingly cemented Usood Al-Rafiadin’s place on the big stage.
Road to Rio
Fast forward to 2016 and Iraq’s Olympic team became favourites to take one of three qualifying spots to the summer games in Brazil. Iraq were predicted qualification for purely one reason – being the defending champions. Having said that, it was not all plain sailing for the Lions as the side suffered some big losses. Udinese’s Ali Adnan, Rizespor’s Dhurgham Ismail, and Ängelholms’ Rebin Asaad could not attend the tournament in Qatar due to club commitments. One man trusted to lead the line was Grasshopper Zurich striker Sherko Kareem. Kareem lit up the U-17 World Cup in 2013 which subsequently earned him a move to Switzerland from his boyhood club Al-Shorta. Although training in Doha with the squad, the striker was sent back on a plane before a game had even kicked off. Club Zurich had recalled his services. With preparation not going exactly to plan team selection wise, the side had a secret weapon. His name was Abdul Ghani-Shahad. This was the man who was responsible for gaining Naft Al-Wasat promotion to the Iraqi Premier League and winning them the title in their first season of top flight football. A simply sensational achievement. Shahad was roped in to lift the young squad and help achieve them qualification to a fifth Olympic tournament. Unbeaten in nine games prior to the championships, the U-23 manager was off to a flyer.