Iraq is gearing up to play for another global soccer trophy, five years after a surprising run to the Asian Cup title.
The Iraqis last week qualified for the next year Under-20 World Cup, which will be held in Turkey. They got there after reaching the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation’s under-19 championship on Wednesday.
“This is a comeback of Iraqi football achievements,” Iraqi Football Association President Najeh Hamoud said on Thursday. “This qualification will boost Iraqi football and it is proof that it never dies despite all hardships because we have the determination and capabilities.”
Iraq qualified for the U20 tournament by beating Japan 2-1 in the quarterfinals of the under-19 tournament. Australia, South Korea and Uzbekistan also qualified for the Under-20 World Cup from Asia.
The Iraqis beat Australia in the semifinals 2-0 and face South Korea for the U19 title on Saturday.
Soccer has been a rare unifying factor in a country torn by war and ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
On Wednesday, hours after a series of suicide bombings killed more than 17 people in a string of Iraqi cities, men gathered to cheer on the national team in its 1-0 win over Jordan in Doha, Qatar. The World Cup qualifying match helped its chances of reaching the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Iraq has qualified for the Under-20 World Cup three times before, and reached the quarterfinals in 1989. In 1977 and 2001, the team failed to make it through the group stage.
At the AFC under-19 tournament, Iraq is a five-time champion. The last of those titles came in 2000, and a year later the team finished third in a group with Brazil and Germany at the Under-20 World Cup. But Iraq’s emerging soccer program was devastated by years of sanctions and war.
“Now with this page turned, we have to prepare carefully and work hard for the next page, which will be different and hard as we will play with different teams,” Hamoud said. “When you are among the strongest teams in the world, you have be strong, too.”
Iraq won its biggest soccer prize in 2007, using several of the U20 players from the 2001 squad and giving its war-weary residents something to celebrate by claiming the continental title for the first time.
Although the team qualified for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and finished fourth at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the run to the title in Malaysia remains the team’s greatest moment in soccer.