Jesus Casas hopes Iraq can emulate 2007 Asian Cup success and welcome home new 'heroes'

Spaniard guided country to Arabian Gulf Cup title but says he is constantly reminded of team's title win 17 years ago

Iraq head coach Jesus Casas will see his side first face Indonesia in Asian Cup Group D. Getty
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As an Iraq resident for the past year and, more conspicuously, the current manager of its national team, Jesus Casas is never too removed from reminders of the country’s crowning football moment.

“Lots of times,” smiles the Spaniard, in reference to how often Iraq’s momentous 2007 Asian Cup title win forms the focus of conversation. “In Iraq, all these players are heroes.

“Since I’ve been living there, it is impossible not to see any highlights about that tournament. Mahdi Karim [a member of that victorious side] was with us as team manager and he told about that experience.

“It was incredible for them. For the whole country.”

Almost 17 years on, that remarkable result remains Iraq’s sole success in the continent’s showpiece competition, placing Karim, Younis Mahmoud – then captain and also match-winner in the final against Saudi Arabia – and colleagues alongside their celebrated predecessors who qualified for the 1986 World Cup.

Yet, sitting now in his Doha hotel as Iraq get set for Monday’s 2023 Asian Cup Group D opener against Indonesia, Casas isn’t burdened by the spectre of 2007.

He understands it, embraces it. Encourages it, too.

“Inshallah, my players will be heroes in Iraq now, or after World Cup qualification,” he tells The National. “Because I know the importance of football in Iraq, that generation with Younis Mahmoud and everyone. All the people remember them.”

Casas, 50, has quickly gone about cementing his team’s place in Iraqi hearts also. That was pretty much secured not long after his appointment in November 2022 when, less than three weeks following his first match with the national team, he was guiding his new side to Arabian Gulf Cup glory.

A fourth regional crown not only snapped a 34-wait for the trophy, but it held even greater significance: the tournament took place in Basra, the first time the competition was staged in Iraq for almost half a century.

It was only the year before that Fifa, after decades of war and instability in Iraq, lifted its ban on the country hosting international matches.

“When I went to Iraq, I didn't know about it, only from the news, newspapers or TV,” says Casas, who had spent almost his entire coaching career in Spain, save for a short stint in 2018 as assistant to Javi Gracia in the English Premier League with Watford. “But when we arrived in Iraq, all the people were very kind with us, very hospitable.

“And after the Gulf Cup, crazy. We always say about that moment; it was very happy for us, because we can see a lot of happiness in Iraqi people.”

The joy was palpable. Having been starved of major international football in their homeland, Iraqis packed the stands to push forward their team. That passion, captured on camera and transported far and wide on social media, became one of the highlights of the tournament.

For sure, it struck a chord with Casas.

“Very, very surprised,” he says, puffing out his cheeks. “Because I was in [Real Madrid’s] Santiago Bernabeu, [Barcelona’s] Camp Nou, [Liverpool’s] Anfield, in a lot of stadiums, but it was incredible.

“Three hours before the match, the stadium was full. The people all the time supporting. It was amazing.”

Understandably, Casas is keen now to draw a line under that tournament, however restorative it felt. He has completely recalibrated the side since, casting the net wide beyond Iraq to tap into its diaspora. Thirteen of the players in this month’s Asian Cup squad were born or brought up in Europe.

It reflects a shifting of perspectives, of Iraq’s place not just in the region, but the world.

“Football is another part of a reality of life,” Casas says. “I think in this moment Iraq football has a good opportunity to show the rest of the world that Iraq is changing.

“For example, we live in Iraq most of the year; it’s a country that needs to grow and needs to, not forget the past of course, but see the future with expectation, with happiness.

“The Gulf Cup was very important for us, but it is past. We can’t live with our past. OK, it was an amazing moment. It was very important for our country, for our people, for the players. But now it's other history and we are changing a lot of things. If you compare the national team in the Gulf Cup to now, we have only seven players [from then]. Now we're focusing on the Asian Cup, but maybe in the next matches for [2026] World Cup qualification, things will be very different.

“All the players are in every moment working for the Iraq national team, for their future, for our future.”

The use of “our” is telling. Casas has clearly bought into life in Baghdad, his decision to reside there with his backroom staff – a raft of previous managers chose not to be based in Iraq - endearing him to the public.

His wife and 16-year-old daughter have remained in Cadiz in southern Spain, principally because of the latter’s schooling.

Casas describes residing in Baghdad as “a normal life”: gym in the morning at the mall near his apartment, then working with his staff at home, the Iraq Football Association, or wherever the job may demand he be, be it in Erbil, Najaf or Basra.

At night, when they’re not running the rule over league matches, he and his team go out for dinner. Being present works on both a professional and personal level.

“It is very important to be in Iraq because you see the league,” Casas says. “Usually we watch three or four matches each week. You can know better the players, the style, the qualities.

“Not only the football, but the life; you can know the lifestyle, how is the feel of the people, the federation. It’s better. It helps us.”

It should help in Qatar these next few weeks. Group D pits Iraq against two developing football nations in Indonesia and Vietnam, and Japan, the tournament favourites and arguably one of the world’s best international sides of the past year.

The top two teams are guaranteed to move on to the knockouts; even third might be enough for the last 16.

“The group’s very hard,” Casas says. “Obviously, the main reason is because of Japan. They are one of the favourites, with a big level.

“And Indonesia and Vietnam are in the same process as us: they are improving a lot in the last years. They are very good teams, who we played recently in World Cup qualification [winning both as the 2026 campaign got under way], but this is different.

“So it's a difficult group, but we have to think only about the first match, because it's the most important now, and after we think about Japan and after about Vietnam. But, now, only Indonesia.”

Expectation, thanks to the Gulf Cup title and the perfect start to World Cup qualification, has risen. But Casas urges caution.

“All is possible in football, but we have to be quiet, see the situation with a big perspective,” he says. “I know the fans want to win and, ‘Japan, South Korea, no problem. We are Iraq’.

“But we need to be calm because we have a lot of young players, aged 18, 19, 20, 21. We can’t push these players that, ‘We need to win’. Yes, we all want to win; the players and us. We want to win more than the supporters and all of the world, but it takes time.

“Life has a lot of problems and football is to enjoy. We have to enjoy. When we finish this tournament, only one team is the winner. The rest? No. But we have to be happy because there are a lot of things more important, like health and family.”

Casas emphasises the sense of family within his side, as well, stresses a sense of union will be key to Iraq getting to where they want to be.

“If not, it is impossible,” he says.

The World Cup in two years’ time, in what would mark Iraq’s only second appearance at football’s marquee tournament, is the priority (upon signing, Casas was given a four-year contract).

Unlike his players, Casas has sampled a global finals before; before taking charge of Iraq, he served for four years as an assistant to Luis Enrique with the Spain national team.

“Luis Enrique, his treatment of the players, man-management, is top,” he says. “The Spain national team, Barcelona, now [Paris Saint-Germain], it’s the highest level.”

Yet, for now, the focus is a successful Asian Cup, however that is quantified. Casas, though, has an idea.

“Success is that the Iraqi people are proud of our performance,” he says. “But, for me, the most, most important is the players enjoy, and the young players are growing with this tournament.

“Because we are building a very good team, a nice group, and I hope when we finish the tournament – I don’t know where – I can be satisfied with their performance.

“I think a lot of our players will be a surprise for the world.”

Updated: January 15, 2024, 7:28 AM