- Saad Natiq played for Iraq at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013
- He also faced a Brazilian side containing Neymar at Rio 2016
- His aim is now to help Iraq return to the World Cup after a long absence
Thirty-five years have passed since Iraq debuted at the FIFA World Cup™. That team was spearheaded by the late Ahmed Radi, who beat none other than Belgium’s Jean-Marie Pfaff to score the country’s one and only goal at football’s premier event.
Now, three-and-a-half decades on, a new generation of Iraqis believe they can end the team’s long hiatus. With two matchdays remaining in the second round of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar2022™, the Lions of Mesopotamia lead the way in Group C.
Srecko Katanec’s side face Hong Kong next Friday then IR Iran on Tuesday 15 June in a fascinating duel that will most likely determine who tops the group and qualifies directly for the third and decisive qualifying round.
As well as a potent attack headed by Mohanad Ali, the Slovenian coach will be counting on his formidable rearguard for the next two games. With only three goals conceded in six fixtures, Iraq unsurprisingly boast the meanest defence in the group.
Defender Saad Natiq, who played the first five group games before missing the last one against Cambodia due to suspension, returns to the side. He found time to chat with FIFA.comabout Iraq’s dreams of reaching the next World Cup in Qatar.
“We’re top of the group so have a good chance of securing qualification [for the next round] in the next two matches,” he says of his team’s chances.
“We had a good period of preparation with the squad all together and contesting two friendlies. Right now, the team are in top form, so I hope we can perform to a good level in these two fixtures to make the Iraqi fans happy.
“The role of the coach has been key, because he’s worked a lot on how we set up at the back, giving us the best defensive record in the group. This motivates us to continue pushing ourselves to maintain that level,” added the 27-year-old.
Man for the big occasion
Saad Natiq shone brightly in 2013 when, along with many of his current team-mates, he led Iraq to the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey. There they came up short against Uruguay and subsequently lost to Ghana in the third-place match.
Three years later, the commanding defender represented his country at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Rio 2016, playing two games. As well as acquiring invaluable experience, Natiq had the distinction of helping his side earn a deserved draw with Neymar’s Brazil during the group phase.
“Getting fourth place with the U-20s at a World Cup was a magnificent experience that we got to enjoy with our coach Hakeem Shakir. We also performed well at the Olympics but weren’t lucky enough to get past the group stage,” he recalls.
“It was a great adventure that taught us a lot. Taking part in those two tournaments gave us a lot of experience, so we’re hoping we can reach another World Cup. We’ll be doing all we can to achieve this goal,” the player adds.
Natiq insists that Iraq’s fine results in recent years are mainly due to the great understanding that exists between team members who have been playing together since U-20 level.
“Most of us have been playing together for a long time, as far back as 2013. We started with the U-20s, then we moved on to the Olympic team for Rio de Janeiro, and now we’re in the senior side. The end result is that there’s now a great rapport between the players, which has had a positive effect on the team,” he says.
“We hope to appear again at a major international tournament, such as the World Cup,” concluded Natiq, who would love to return to Qatar having played there for Al Arabi. “However, reaching Qatar 2022 will require complete solidarity and support for the current generation. Only then will we achieve our goal and be able to face the best teams on the planet.”