Iraqi teams in the AFC Cup
Kuala Lumpur: Air Force Club are a few steps away from becoming the first club to ever win the AFC Cup title three times in a row, the-AFC.com remembers the history of Iraqi teams since joining the tournament back in 2009.
With 10 goals between them in the competition so far, Hammadi Ahmad and Amjad Radhi paved the way for Air Force Club to stand tall against every opposition they faced in this year's AFC Cup.
In the West Asia Zonal semi-finals, the Iraqi side knocked out Lebanon's Al Ahed to keep their title defence and unbeaten record ongoing.
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Air Force's domination is the culmination of a rich history for Iraqi teams in the AFC Cup since Arbil and Al Zawraa made their debuts nine years ago.
The debutants of Iraq
After taking part of the AFC Champions League from 2002 till 2008, teams from Iraq first appeared in the AFC Cup in 2009, with league champions Arbil and runners-up Al Zawraa becoming the first to represent the country in the competition.
Al Zawraa hit the ground running, as they dominated Group B, finishing top while Arbil got only two wins, snatching second place in Group C on goal difference ahead of Oman's Al Orouba.
The two Iraqi sides went head to head in the Round of 16, and Adnan Attiya's goal for Al Zawraa was not enough as three strikes from Ahmad Salah, Luay Salah and Ahmad Abd Ali granted Arbil victory in the single-legged tie played in Dubai.
In the quarter-finals, the side from Erbil were up against Kuwait SC. Mahdi Karim bagged a crucial away goal in the first leg to get the game level, yet it was not enough as the Kuwaitis secured victory in the second fixture at Franso Hariri Stadium, eliminating Arbil en route to lifting the trophy.
Arbil's Kuwaiti nightmare
After Iraqi sides missed out on the 2010 edition due to a FIFA ban, Arbil came back stronger the following year, marching all the way to the semi-finals, before bowing out to the same nemesis, Kuwait SC.
In 2012, they finished top of their group while keeping an unbeaten record. In the knockout stage, they defeated every opponent they faced, thrashing Uzbekistan's Neftchi 4-0, and registering 14 goals in the next two rounds against Malaysia's Kelantan and Thailand's Chonburi with eight on aggregate.
Incredibly, for the third time, Kuwait SC stood between Arbil and continental glory. Despite hosting the final, Arbil offered little resistance, going behind after just three minutes and going on to lose 4-0.
A relatively disappointing campaign for Iraqi clubs in 2013 saw both Arbil and debutants Dohuk crash out in the Round of 16. The former lost to Syria's Al Shorta while the latter bowed out to Kuwait SC.
Arbil were back for another assault on the title in 2014, this time coming closer than ever. After overcoming Nejmeh, Hanoi FC and Kitchee to reach the final, another Kuwait side was in the way, this time it was Qadsia SC who ended Arbil's hopes.
After the stalemate persisted for 120 minutes, it was down to penalties in Dubai's Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium. Veteran Hawar Mulla Mohammed and young defender Ali Faiz missed their attempts, consigning the Northern Iraqi side to yet another frustrating end to an AFC Cup campaign.
The Air Force Club era
After years of desperation, an Iraqi side finally claimed the trophy in 2016. Air Force Club topped their group ahead of Syria's Al Wahda and afterwards eliminated Al Wehdat, Al Jaish and Al Ahed to reach the final.
The Baghdad-based club traveled to Doha to play the final against India's JSW Bengaluru and in the 70th minute, striker Hammadi Ahmad bagged the only goal of the game and his 16th in the contest to mark the first AFC Cup triumph in the history of Iraq.
Air Force Club's domination continued the following year, and despite the 2016 top scorer not showing the same lethal form in front of goal, the team showed they are about more than one man.
A memorable derby win over Al Zawraa in the West Asian Zonal semi-finals was the highlight of Air Force Club's journey to the final which saw them also sweep past Syria's Al Wahda.
Air Force Club recorded a 5-3 aggregate victory over Al Ahed to set up a #AFCCup2018 West Zone Final showdown with Al Jazeera! Here are the highlights from the second leg of their semi-final clash!— AFC Cup (@AFCCup) May 15, 2018
Match Report: https://t.co/P8pgIOsjBc https://t.co/ffQbBaSLZe
Emad Mohsin's solitary strike aginst Tajikistan's FC Istiklol was enough to hand the Iraqis their second consecutive title.
Mohsin and co are now three matches away from making it a historic hat-trick of AFC Cup titles, and the decisive phase begins with a trip to Amman on September 18 where they take on dark horses Al Jazeera in the first leg of the West Asia Zonal final, before welcoming them to Karbala two weeks later as they bid to write a new golden chapter in the story of Iraqi clubs in the AFC Cup.
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