DUBAI: If Harry Kane looks a little frustrated for Tottenham Hotspur at the moment, the same was true 10 years ago as England threw away a 2–0 lead against Iraq at the FIFA U-20 World Cup to draw 2-2.
Kane was there when the young Three Lions finished bottom of their group, and Iraq made it all the way to the semifinals.
At the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the two nations have been grouped together again, with Tunisia and Uruguay completing the line-up. It all means that there is a chance of an Arab team in the knockout stage.
It is a tough group, but only to be expected in an elite international competition such as this.
England recovered from that embarrassment a decade ago to win the tournament in 2017, and Uruguay are habitual participants in the knockout stages.
The two Arab teams should not be too downhearted, as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar showed what is possible, and here is no need for fear in Argentina – the tournament was switched from Indonesia in March.
There would be an even better chance if Iraq had Zidane Iqbal in their ranks. The Manchester United midfielder wanted, according to reports, to make the trip to Argentina but head coach Erik ten Hag has refused to release any of his players, with the club looking to secure its place in the top four of the English Premier League and qualify for the UEFA Champions League.
The president of the Iraqi Football Association, Adnan Darjal, even met with the Dutchman in an attempt to persuade him of the team’s need, but Iqbal, who has not featured in the league this season, will be spending the next few weeks in Europe and not South America.
There is still plenty of talent. Iraq, who have not appeared at the tournament since that stellar performance in 2013, start against Uruguay on Monday, May 22, and as usual when it comes to the Lions of Mesopotamia, anything can happen.
They qualified by virtue of reaching the final of the AFC U-20 Asian Cup in March, when they pushed hosts Uzbekistan all the way before eventually losing 1-0.
If the defence looked pretty solid, many of the headlines in Central Asia went the way of Ali Jasim.
The winger scored the goal that clinched the victory over Iran and a place at the World Cup. It was also a strike that showcased his skill. Picking up the ball midway in the Iranian half, he drove into the area and, despite being surrounded by white shirts, fired a perfect low shot into the opposite corner. It was just one of 26 completed dribbles at the tournament, more than any other player. The 19-year-old has the potential to be a breakout star if he can play with the same confidence and flair against Uruguay and the other teams in the group.
Jasim is a veteran compared to Adam Rasheed. The 16-year-old was born in Denmark to a Lithuanian mother and Iraqi father, and has already caught the attention of Danish clubs, joining FC Nordsjaelland in 2019 before moving to Aalborg three years later.
With the choice to represent Denmark or Iraq, the defender last year opted for the Lions of Mesopotamia and, given his performances at the Asian Cup, it seems to have been the right choice.
He could end up playing alongside Alai Ghasem, who was born in Sweden with parents from Iraq and Algeria. The IFK Goteborg defender has also played for the senior side. The same can be said for Alex Aoraha who has made his full international debut and plays for Queens Park Rangers in England’s second tier. Such varied experience should stand Iraq in good stead and they will not mind being underestimated by Uruguay and England.
The Three Lions are Tunisia’s first opponents, also on Monday. The senior team came close to reaching the knockout stage at the World Cup in Qatar thanks to a famous win over France.
Starting with three points this time will not be easy. The young Carthage Eagles squeezed into the U-20 World Cup by squeezing into fourth pace at the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations in March. After claiming one point from the first two games, they got out of the group with a 2-1 win over bottom team Zambia. Then, there was a penalty shootout win over Congo in the second round that brought a semifinal against Senegal, which ended in a 3-0 loss.
Much of the focus will be on Lyon midfielder Chaim El-Djebali, a former French youth international who has also represented Tunisia’s senior side in a friendly against Comoros last year. There is Rayan Nasraoui, a left-sided player with Nimes, and Mohamed Dhaoui, the forward who joined Egyptian giants Al-Ahly earlier this year.
The talent is there then but then there is plenty of talent across the tournament. Arab teams had a successful World Cup in Qatar with Morocco reaching the last four. Iraq and Tunisia have a model to follow and the talent to make it happen.