By Samindra Kunti in Abu Dhabi
January 8 – Srecko Katanac, the Slovenian in charge of Iraq, is back in the UAE but this time as manager of Iraq. Charged with rebuilding what was an aging team, he has his sights set on 2022. He spoke with Samindra Kunti.
Srecko Katanec and Iraq first crossed paths at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles when the former Yugoslavia took on the Iraqis in a group game of the Olympic football tournament. At the break the Iraqis led 2-0, but the Yugoslavs turned the game on its head in the second half to run out 4-2 victors. They would go on to win the bronze medal. That same year, Katanec also participated in the 1984 European Championship, but with less success as Yugoslavia slumped to a hapless first-round exit losing all three group matches against hosts France, Belgium and Denmark.
“You know, we were down 2-0 against the Iraqi team,” recalls Katanec. “We were down in the quarter-final against Germany and then we won with 5-2. So, we were so strong, but the mentality was a little bit not good. In the semi-final against France we also went 2-0 down after 15 minutes. We got two red cards and we drew 2-2. But with a different mentality we could have done more.”
As coach of the United Arab Emirates, Katanec encountered Iraq thrice more, losing two games and drawing one. Today, the Slovenian coaches Iraq, having succeeded Qasim Basim in September. Katanec enjoys a wealth of experience in the international game, having guided his native country to the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea. Katanec also led Macedonia for three years.
“What attracted me [in the job] is the challenge,” says Katanec. “I’d like to see how it is to work with, in my opinion, a very talented national team. For many years they played with quite the same national team. So, I was also attracted, because for the first time in a long time Iraq will play qualifiers at home. I know that in the past in Iraq football meant a lot to the people and the players. It will not be easy because football has changed, but this is a challenge so I’d like to try to do the best.”
His stint with the United Arab Emirates ended in disappointment as his team failed to register a single point at the 2011 Asian Cup in a group with Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Goalscoring proved to be the Achilles heel of the team and he was later sacked. It was a valuable experience for Katanec, but the Slovenian emphasised that his current role with Iraq is a world apart from his time in the United Arab Emirates.
“It is so different, a different time, a different place, different circumstances,” explains Katanec. “Ah, you coached the United Arab Emirates from 2009 to 2011 and then the other coach preceded or succeeded you and they were better or worse. So, we are not in the same circumstances. The Iraqi national team played for many years with the same team, with all these guys who were there for 10, 15 years. Now, they are not anymore here. So, we need to build a new team and it’s a completely different story.”
Katanec has had to contend with the difficult environment of Iraq’s domestic league. In 2007 the country won a maiden Asian Cup in a historic campaign defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final in Jakarta, but Iraqi football has since remained isolated and only last year did FIFA lift the ban for Iraq to stage international matches in three designated cities: Erbil, Basra and Karbala. The decision followed an international friendly between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in Basra in February, the first international match on Iraqi soil in 40 years.
“I saw a few games from the Iraqi domestic league,” says Katanec. “The conditions are very difficult. They play the games at 3:30 in the afternoon with 40 degrees celsius, the pitches are not okay. It is very difficult. The Iraqi league should develop, to start with the facilities. Everything is a bit slow.”
On debut, Katanec’s Iraq defeated Kuwait 2-1 in September, followed by a 4-0 loss at the hands of Argentina and a 1-1 draw with Saudi Arabia in October. The latter two games were a reality check for Iraq, who are used to more benign opposition when playing friendlies against the likes of Palestine, Oman and Lebanon.
In the Autumn the Iraqis scheduled a training camp, which allowed Katanec to observe more players and build his team as Iraq prepare to face neighbour Iran, Vietnam and Yemen. Given the time constraints the 55-year-old coach considers the tournament a stepping stone for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, even if the question of repeating the 2007 heroics lingers in the background.
“Before I signed my contract the Federation asked me about that and I said if you want to put pressure and I need to get results in the Asian Cup then immediately you can start to look for another coach because I am not able to guarantee a result with just three friendly matches and one camp,” said Katanec. “The national team we need to build, through the camp we need to develop. That needs time. And they accepted that.”
Katanec has already selected Ali Adnan from Italian club Atlanta, Osama Rashid from Portugese club Santa Clara and US-based Justin Meram as he bids to scour the Iraqi diaspora abroad to strengthen his side. They must help in achieving Katanec’s objective of qualification for the World Cup finals in 2022.
“I told everybody that I work here because I want to go, I want to be in the World Cup,” asserts Katanec. “That’s my challenge. So, from all these Asian Cup games I also need all the information to build the team for the qualifiers of the World Cup. So, that is my challenge to choose the players who will be able to win. Not to play good, but to win.”
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1634708746labto1634708746ofdlr1634708746owedi1634708746sni@o1634708746fni1634708746