If ever a team had extra motivation to perform well on the pitch it is Iraq, who are hoping to emulate their 2007 Asian Cup success at the Confederations Cup starting with victory over hosts South Africa here on Sunday.
Despite the acute suffering and hardship in a country in the process of picking itself up off its knees after years of conflict, the Iraqi team surmounted all to be crowned champions of Asia two years ago.
And experienced captain Younes Mahmoud and star striker Nashat Akram spelled out their wish to replicate that feat on the fields of Africa in this dress rehearsal for the 2010 World Cup.
Having struggled since the Asian Cup the players, accompanied by veteran and much-travelled coach Bora Milutinovic, told an eve-of-match press conference at Ellis Park here that they were in Africa to do business.
“In the Asian Cup we did well against all odds in what was a difficult period for our people. We won it, and now we’re looking forward to rekindling that memory of happiness for the Iraqi people,” said Mahmoud.
“We have a mission beyond football – we want to make our people, who are suffering war and conflict, happy.
“That’s why physically and mentally we’re prepared to help Iraq – that’s ‘our weapon’ and we wish god will help us achieve this task.”
“Our country is changing for the better, we want to help lift our people’s pain.”
Akram, who has just signed a three year contract with Dutch club FC Twente, making him only the second Iraqi to play in Europe, added: “What’s important is for the Iraqi team to represent all our people and communities regardless of their affiliations.
“We not only have Sunnis and Shi’ites on the team, but Christians and Kurds too.”
More importantly, on the footballing plain at least, is the presence of seven of the players who helped Iraq take their continental crown.
In Milutinovic, who was appointed only in April, they have a vastly experienced coach who has taken five different teams to the World Cup finals. He paid tribute to his squad.
“It’s a privilege to be the Iraq coach.
“Coaching Iraq is the biggest challenge of my career. I’ve only had seven days in Baghdad, all the players are based outside – but I know they are going to do everything to make their people happy.
“When I see the atmosphere there (in Baghdad) I realise I’m very close emotionally to the Iraqi players – they have ambition to show that in spite of all the difficulties they may have, they have a very competitive team to do their best for themselves and their country.”
Turning to the not insignificant job of trying to topple South Africa on home soil, the Serb added: “I really trust my team, it’s one that achieved enormous things in the Asian Cup and we’ll do everything we can to win and qualify for the next round.”
Akram chipped in: “It’s going to be very difficult playing against the hosts. We hope to play good football despite knowing it’s going to be tough.”
“We’ve prepared well after a two week training camp in Qatar.”
Asked about the prospect one day of being able to step out and play in front of their home fans, Akram commented: “We’re looking forward to the lifting of the ban on the Iraqi team. For the past six years we’ve played 75 matches, all outside Iraq – as soon as it’s lifted we’ll go back to play in front of our fans.”
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