Iraq shook up the Asian Cup with a 2-1 win over Japan on Friday in what was not only a deserved victory, but a triumph that also evoked memories of the Miracle of Jakarta in 2007.
It was then that the Lions of Mesopotamia made headlines around the world in what was one of the most thrilling and meaningful sporting stories that year, or any year, as they became continental champions for the first time after defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final of the Asian Cup.
One result does not guarantee a repeat but just as Iraq defeated Australia, the team everyone expected to lift the trophy, in their second group game in Bangkok in 2007, this time they did the same with Japan in Doha. Both results demonstrated just what the talent in the team is capable of.
Back then the Iraq team arrived at the tournament with not much in the way of expectations but packed with potential. This time, something similar could be said.
Everyone knows that Japan, with a record four Asian Cup titles to their name, are the clear favorites to make it five. That would have been the case even if they had not arrived in Qatar on a run of 11 wins (including September’s 4-1 victory over Germany in Wolfsburg), scoring 49 goals in the process.
Iraq deservedly won. However, this was no smash and grab. If the performance was reminiscent of 2007, there was something else that reminded of that famous adventure in Southeast Asia.
Younis Mahmoud, the “Desert Fox,” stole the show 17 years ago by being the tournament’s joint top scorer and MVP. His header that settled the final against Saudi Arabia remains one of the most famous goals ever scored in Asian football.
Iraq coach Jesus Casas could just have a similar talisman on his hands now.
Aymen Hussein, who struggled early on in his international career before finding his feet, and the net, scored both goals against Japan — two powerful headers from close range. They were the kind of strikes that Younis himself would have been proud of. It was almost as if he himself had put on that famous white shirt to provide an unforgettable afternoon in the Qatari sunshine.
“I think the perfect match doesn’t exist,” said Casas. “It’s impossible to have a perfect match, but we were close to perfect.”
The win, however, was not just down to the goal scorer. Defensively, his team were inspired and worked from the first whistle to the last to deny Japan space, time and comfort.
The result highlights the promising job that coach Casas has done. Since taking the reins in late 2022, the 50 year-old has slowly built a style of play that, like the 2007 team, blends physical strength, hard work, strong team spirit along with technical skill.
The Gulf Cup does not always get the headlines but it was an important piece of preparation for Casas and his players. The joint top scorers in that tournament were Hussein and Ibrahim Bayesh, who both impressed against Japan.
The Gulf Cup triumph has no doubt imbued the squad with confidence going into the this tournament. It was not just an impressive win but one which shows the rest of the continent — or at least the other 22 teams at the Asian Cup — that Japan can be defeated. Heading into the tournament, there was talk about the Samurai Blue being a world-class team that now has ambitions of using a record fifth Asian success for a springboard to a jump to the top of the global game.
Defensively, however, they are vulnerable, conceding four goals in the first 135 minutes of the tournament — two against Vietnam, two against Iraq. Crosses into the area have been an issue and then there is the goalkeeper.
Japan have a squad full of talent that plays at the very highest levels in Europe yet the team lacks a top-class goalkeeper. Zion Suzuki made a major mistake against Vietnam that led to a goal and after that, there was a palpable feeling of tension in the Japanese defense, and with no other clear number one option, it may well continue.
Coach Hajime Moriyasu talked of the atmosphere at Education City Stadium as being like an away game. The vast majority of the 39,000 fans inside the arena were strongly behind Iraq. The other Arab teams will take heart from such comments. The likes of Saudi Arabia can also expect a lot of support, and when it comes to the big games, that could prove the difference between success and failure.
But it is about much more than that. Iraq’s sweat, skill and steely mentality were all too much for the best team in Asia. It may not end with a second trophy in two decades for the Lions of Mesopotamia, but if it does, then Friday will be remembered as the day when Iraq started to believe.