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Australia's Iraq policy

November 27, 2007
By Jason Dasey
(Archive)

As incoming Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vowed again to withdraw Australia's troops from Iraq, the football Gods ensured that the two countries would continue to be intrinsically linked on a sporting level.

GettyImages / AlexanderJoeFormer Iranian player Ali Daei draws Australia during FIFA 2010 football World Cup qualifying draw.

The 2010 World Cup draw from Durban - held on the same weekend as Australia's national election - threw the Socceroos into Asian qualifying group one, with regional champions, Iraq, emerging as their biggest rivals.

China and Qatar are the other nations in what's already being dubbed the pool of death, meaning that the days of Australia winning World Cup qualifiers 31-0 (as they did in an Oceania match against American Samoa ahead of the 2002 finals) are long gone.

With only the top two teams from the pool advancing to the next stage, Australian sports fans are looking forward to a nerve-jangling process - beginning in February - in their first World Cup route through Asia. All four sides are ranked in the region's top-10.

And the Iraqis will again emerge as the Socceroos' nemesis in an unlikely sporting rivalry that may ultimately provide football's answer to The Ashes in cricket (against England) and Rugby Union's Bledisloe Cup (versus New Zealand).

The third round of the Asian qualifiers will mark the fourth major competition in less than four years in which fate has thrown the two nations together.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Iraq stunned Australia 1-0 in the quarter finals before going on to win the gold medal in the football competition.

In July's Asian Cup, a Socceroo team containing Premier League stars Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell crashed to a humiliating 3-1 group defeat against a team of unknowns from the war-ravaged nation. The Iraqis would go on to win the Asian Cup, with Australia losing on penalties at the quarter-final stage to previous champions, Japan.

And then in November, Australia's under-23 side needed to beat Iraq or face likely elimination in qualifying for the 2008 Olympics. Relying on two goals from set-pieces against a technically superior side, the Olyroos scrapped their way to a 2-0 home victory before booking a place in Beijing.

Olyroos' coach Graham Arnold, whose career was effectively derailed by the Asian Cup defeat to Iraqi, described the successful passage to the Olympics as his greatest achievement as a coach. The young Australians guaranteed their participation with a 1-1 draw in North Korea in their final qualifier.

Even so, there will be no hint of complacency when the Socceroos face Iraq's senior side in two upcoming matches on the road to the 2010 World Cup.

At senior level on home soil, Australia beat the Iraqis 2-1 in a 2005 Sydney friendly, thanks to a late goal from ex-Fulham midfielder Ahmad Elrich. But the score - against a lively and unlucky Iraq side - flattered the pre-Guus Hiddink Socceroos.

Technical director and caretaker coach Rob Baan says the Australians will now be ready for anything that Iraq may throw at them.

'Never let yourself be surprised twice,' Baan told The Sydney Morning Herald. 'It's one of the toughest groups, but at the same time we have enough information about these countries so we can prepare well and we will not underestimate them.'

GettyImages / RobertCianfloneMark Viduka is dejected as Iraqi players celebrate their win after the AFC Asian Cup

Brazil's Jorvan Vieira, who masterminded Iraq's Asian Cup triumph, is near the top of a shortlist to take over as Socceroo coach in the wake of Dick Advocaat's shock decision to stay in Russia with Zenit.

The Aussies will rightly be expecting to win their home qualifying matches, even with some of their Europe-based stars unlikely to be available. But July's Asian Cup showed that the Socceroos are vulnerable when they venture into unfamiliar and inhospitable conditions.

Away matches against Iraq and Qatar in the extreme heat of west Asia - the Middle East - will already be sending alarm bells through the squad. And the trip to China will be tough too, although Australia did beat the Chinese 2-0 in March's pre-Asian Cup friendly in Guangzhou.

Their performance at Germany 2006 - the only AFC nation to advance to the second round - ensured that the Socceroos were Asia's top dogs for 2010 World Cup qualifying, avoiding any chance of initially meeting fellow seeds, Japan, South Korea or Saudi Arabia.

But the Asian Cup disaster - just one victory in four matches - means that a lot of the mystique of Australia's overseas-dominated squad was shattered in Bangkok and Hanoi heatwaves. Ahead of the Durban draw, Thailand's coach Chanvit Phalajivin was quoted as saying that he hoped that his team avoided Japan and were pitted against the Socceroos (in the end, the Thais ended up in group two with the Japanese, Bahrain and Oman).

Iraq's 'Bangkok belting' of the Socceroos proved to the region that it has nothing to fear against the players it regularly watches in 'live' weekly TV coverage of the English Premier League.

It's almost as if the rest of Asia is saying: 'You're in our backyard now, let's see what you can really do.'

• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host.


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