Iraqi 11 in Rio: Lessons for PH

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ROMY P. MARIÑAS

ROMY P. MARIÑAS

Ayman Hussein proves that a nation at war like his native Iraq can rise above the seemingly endless violence and turn the dreams of a 23-year-old football player into Olympic reality.

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Yes, Ayman is going to Rio de Janeiro for the 31st Olympiad as part of the Iraqi eleven that recently made it to the quadrennial sports spectacle by placing third in qualifiers at Doha.

Perhaps without intending to embarrass anyone, Iraq’s national football team did just that last month, beating host Qatar, 2-1.

What probably made the victory personally sweeter for Ayman, 23, was that he scored the winning goal, sending the Iraqis to the football competition of the Rio Olympics along with Japan and South Korea.

The Japanese beat their East Asia neighbors, 3-2, to emerge as the top team among other crack Asian sides in the Doha qualifiers for futbol players 23 years old or younger.

In pulling off the unprecedented feat, the Iraqis beat more fancied—and more well-funded—rivals Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and a few countries from Central Asia for the only three available slots in Rio in August this year.

The age limit for the tournament reflects the apparent depth of football talents in Iraq (population: 37 mil¬lion as of July 2015), whose young men, as well as women and children, are quite unsure if they get to live another day amid suicide bombings and other death causers in a historic and storied land that is described by a wire agency as “football-mad.”

You don’t get to practice in peace there, reportedly even in the capital Baghdad where Ayman’s local football club is based.

And, considering that teams have usually more than 20 in the bench although only 11 of them play a regular game at a given time, getting ready for crucial matches like the Doha qualifiers is, apparently, like preparing for war.

The Olympics has set the age limit also at 23 for those who want to show their skills in the world’s most challenging stage, perhaps even eclipsing the World Cup.

The rule brings into focus the Philippines’ quest for an Olympic spot that, despite the best laid plans of football authorities in the country, at the moment is realistically impossible (the Azkals, for example, are out of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, falling in two crucial encounters with Uzbekistan and Bahrain).

Besides, the country’s national football team at present is composed of players in their mid-20s or late 20s, and so they won’t make the age cut for any Olympic Games.

It’s ironic that for a country with a population of more than 100 million (as of July 2015), the Philippines seems to have a difficult time in finding young talents aged 23 or younger, again despite an apparent surge in interest in the beautiful game in these parts.

Further ironic in that there have been a number of football pitches built by universities and a few corporations, such fields a luxury for Iraqi footballers.

A chink in the armor of the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) is its apparent shortcutting of the process of recruiting native talents, meaning those who can be physically here and even those mestizos— Filipino-British, Filipino-German, Filipino-Dutch, etc.—who are willing to be based in the Philippines, not in London, Berlin or Amsterdam.

Better for the PFF to emulate its Iraqi counterpart: Go native, with a Younghusband, Schrock or de Jong twist, and, maybe, it can then say hello to Olympic football.

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