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Iraq Captain Younis key to victory over China

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Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images.
Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images.

A North Korean defender misses the ball in the six-yard box, and the Iraqi captain is quick to take advantage, his predatory instinct a second nature, taking one touch on his left foot, Younis Mahmoud switches the ball onto his right and places the ball wide of the goal. He puts his hands on his head, his shirt in his mouth, and then gives a wry smile of embarrassment, wanting the ground to swallow him up. He knows he should have scored. But the boy from the town of Dibbis, a battler and a fighter, is never down for long.

He has his critics and for a player, who once doubted he could ever make it as a footballer, the Iraqi captain with over 100 appearances and Iraq’s third all-time scorer, has come far.

PELÉ OF DIBBIS

Younis Mahmoud Khalaf was born on February 3, 1983 in Dibbis, Bey Hassan in the province of Kirkuk. The son of a policemen was known as Pelé in his area and local fans would often come up to him and tell him he should be playing at a higher level. The young Younis would smile and laugh at the comments, not believing he could make it as a player.

His modest beginnings came in the town of Dibbis, where he played for his local neighbourhood side enticed by two falafel sandwiches and 1000 dinars to get him to play. He never liked football, because of the training involved, and his father, a former footballer, use to beat him in order for him to play. He would turn up to play for his side and score goals.

The second eldest of 12 children, Younis left school early to work as a labourer in the city of Tikrit to help his large family to pay the bills – without the knowledge of his own father. He was only found out after his school asked his father why Younis had been absent.

Younis played football in his youth, however his first love was fishing and basketball, often going out to basketball practice in the evenings and then fishing in the night, sometimes sleeping along the local riverbank. He played as a shooting guard, often used by his coach as part of the team’s fast break tactic, and when the team attacked, they use to pass to Younis to score. He was considered one of the best young players in his province and was offered a contract to play for Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya’s basketball team, but turned it down.

Younis played basketball for Kahraba Al-Dibbis in the first and second division and their football team, where his mentor and coach Muwafaq Nouralddin took him under his wing. His coach would develop his career from the lowly depths of the fourth division to the captaincy of the national team.

While other fathers would beat their sons not to play football, Younis’ father would beat him just so he would play football, and would be the first person supporting him on the sidelines. In 1996, Younis, with his father’s heavy handed 'support’ to get him to play, started to play more and more for his local side.

It was his coach Muwafaq that changed his mind about pursuing a career in football, because Younis even at Kahraba Al-Dibbis, never truly gave everything he had, and only with the rough hand of his father was he present at the team’s games, as he never trained with the rest of the players.

One day, his coach took him aside and told him he couldn’t continue playing two sports concurrently and told him to choose between them. Muwafaq loved football, and so did his father, but Younis loved basketball.

However Muwafaq told him that there was no money in basketball in Iraq, and with his family needing the money, they decided Younis should concentrate on football and began to carve out a career in the game. For the next three months, Younis was with the coach and the team, eating, training and playing. The coach had big plans for the youngster, and told him, he would first play for Kirkuk, and then go onto Baghdad, which he did.

BAGHDAD TO DOHA

At Baghdad-based Al-Talaba, one of Iraq’s top clubs, Younis flourished and became a household name, netting a hat-trick against his former club Kirkuk in his first match for the club, and then going onto win a league and cup double, and make his international debut in his first season.

Younis became one of Asia’s sought after strikers after the 2003 war and moved to the United Arab Emirates and then Qatar where he would score 131 goals in 188 matches in nine years. However, while at Al-Gharrafa, where he became Iraq’s first $1 million footballer, the striker almost left the tiny Emirate after a dispute over his contract demands.

In the Qatar Stars League, there was a wage cap for Arab players set at $600,000 to $700,000, but Younis felt he was worth more than what he was being offered, having won the top scorers’ award and titles and cups for his club, and told the club’s owners ’this is what I want and if you don’t give it to me, I won’t play’.

The top Qatari football authorities stated that the player could not be given the amount as he was an Arab player, Younis said he was a player with the abilities exceeding that of any foreign or Arab player and the Qataris eventually backed down and he was given the contract he wanted and what he felt he was worth, and for the next seven seasons, he was paid the same as top foreign based professionals in Qatar.

He told his Iraqi teammates to do the same and demand wages that their talent deserved.

ANOTHER COMEBACK

The Iraq FA elections have been postponed, the national team is in disarray and on the verge of missing out on a place at the 2015 Asian Cup, and the answer to the nation’s problems is to recall the retired Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud. The man that guided Iraq to the Asian Cup in Jakarta seven years ago.

He declared his intention to retire after Iraq’s World Cup exit in Doha in a 1-0 defeat to Japan in the summer, but the call from newly re-appointed Hakim Shaker was one he could not turn down, ‘Younis, you must return’ was what the coach told the player on a live televised phone-in show on Iraqi TV. It was a call to his national duty.

The next day, he signed a four-month contract with Al-Ahly of Jeddah and scored on his debut for the Saudi club.

Weeks later, he flew into Beirut and was named on the bench for the friendly international against Yemen, and 13 minutes after coming on, he stretched his neck out to head in the winner. The savior had returned.

Iraq’s national coaches have tried to find a solution by searching for a new striker to take over the mantle of the Iraqi captain – but Mustafa Karim, Hamadi Ahmed, Hussam Ibrahim, Amjad Radhi and Mohanad Abdul-Rahim and many others have been used, but none have managed to cement a place as Iraq’s main marksman.

But the current national coach, Hakim Shaker who replaced Serbian Vladimir Petrovic, has run out of striking options, and the only solution was Younis.

The Iraqi captain has been much-maligned over the years by a section of the fans and the media – who blame him for unrest in the squad – but his 48 goals in 124 games for the national team, one of which was a winner in the 2007 Asian Cup says a lot about him and his worth to the team and his country.

He is third in Iraq’s all-time goalscorers list behind legends Hussein Saeed and Ahmed Radhi and has been one of the most prolific goalscorers in the Gulf for the past 10 years.

The captain Younis has been keeping fit by training with fitness trainer Sardar Mohammed in the city of Arbil and Baghdad after he had been released by Al-Ahly. His last game for the Saudi club on November 28 against Al-Shabab ended in a 1-0 loss.

Younis had signed a four-month contract with Al-Ahly on Sept. 11, 2013. However, after Younis was dropped by Portuguese coach Vítor Pereira after scoring only three goals in eight games, he left the Jeddah club on November 30 by mutual consent after asking to have his contract rescinded. He felt he was only ‘making up the numbers’ for the remainder of his contract after being dropped.

Younis may not possess the defence splitting pace he once had at the height of his career but with his vast experience at the top level, he knows where to position himself, and where to find space. Unlike his speed, his knack of scoring at crucial moments has not left him.

In each of his matches for the national side, Younis has been Iraq’s standout player and is still Al-Montakhab’s main attacking threat.

After defeats to leaders Saudi Arabia and a narrow win over Indonesia, the Lions of Mesopotamia need a victory over the Chinese in Sharjah to guarantee a spot at the 2015 Asian Cup finals as runners-up from Group C, and with Younis leading from the front, Iraq has a real chance of making it to Australia.