Robert Evans coaches soccer?
Dunno if anyone noticed, but I took some time off to welcome my first child, a wonderful lad named Xabi Fernando Stevie Bursitis, into the world. Amid the dirty diapers and crying fits, I slowly return to blogging.
They have an Uday, but no Qusay, and thanks to the presence of ageless, well-traveled coach Bora Milutinovic (remember him, US fans?), Iraq are ready to challenge for the scraps thrown their way in the Confederations Cup.
To some, the Serb Bora Milutinovic is known as the Miracle Worker, but I prefer to call him the Team Whisperer. He's managed 8 different countries during his 32-year coaching career, and he's always looking for the next difficult project to turn around within a 3 year contract. Renowned for being the only coach to take 5 different teams to a World Cup, not to mention being the first coach to take four different teams beyond the first round, with Bora Iraq are in good hands for their first big test on the world stage. After all, if he could launch China and Costa Rica into World Cup lore, why not this bunch?
First off, they're built for the long haul; just 7 of their 23-man squad is over the age of 25, meaning that the core of youth is there to be refined and honed over the coming years. Let's not think that they're going to win any World Cups or anything, but it's good preparation for making a run for the knockout rounds, or possibly pulling a Turkey or Greece and carving out some decent results.
Of course, I have no idea how good any of these guys are -- the entire squad is basically spilt between clubs in Iraq, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- but the well-drilled team mentality is sometimes enough to shock a better team that may be individually more skilled, but rather sloppy as a team. It's easy to forget that Iraq pulled down a 4th place finish in the 2004 Olympics, as well as a 2007 Asian Cup trophy.
They are led from the frontline, with captain Younis Mahmoud (28 goals in 70 games) and Emad Mohammed (23 in 76) providing the pyrotechnics, and their starting XI has the luxury of longevity -- 10 players have 45 caps or more -- which can be a good thing when looking to pull an upset. As Senegal proved in the '02 World Cup against France, or Cameroon in 1990 against Argentina, it only takes one goal.
Iraq have a leg-up in Group A as only Spain are likely to romp, meaning they could shock the Kiwis or the South Africans and maybe sneak into the knockout round.
In fact, I'll call this my LB Upset Special; look for the Lions of Mesopotamia and their FIFA Ranking of 77 to push on and escape the group stage. Milutinovic is the king of working wonders with limited resources, and the Confederations Cup, a lazy summer tournament where stars try gamely to avoid shocking injuries, should provide the perfect platform for some shock results.