Thu, 28 Oct, 2021
Sydney: Younus Mahmood’s status among the legends of Asian football was sealed when he headed home the winning goal against Saudi Arabia in the final of the AFC Asian Cup 2007 in Jakarta.
At the peak of his powers, Mahmood was terrorising defences throughout Asia with his physical presence, his ability to read the game and his accuracy in front of goal. Few – if any – could match his goal scoring prowess; no defender felt comfortable when Younus was on the prowl.
Eight years on, he is trying to repeat history, to steer Iraq past Korea Republic in the semi-final of the AFC Asian Cup before succeeding in another final to take the trophy back to Baghdad for the second tournament out of three.
Much, though, has changed for Mahmood in the intervening eight years. Older and wiser he undoubtedly is, and while he lacks the pace of the past he now knows how best to pull performances out of not only himself, but his team mates too.
And as he showed with his audacious ‘Panenka’ in the penalty shootout win over Iran, he has lost none of his sense of the dramatic.
Having missed with a similar attempt in a friendly match against the same opposition in a warm-up game before the tournament, and after also failing to score from the spot against Palestine in the group stages, that strike has become one of the most talked about of Australia 2015.
“The penalty that I missed against Iran, I needed to make something special for my people in Australia,” he says of the game played in Wollongong at the start of the month.
“It’s normal that they go to the game. But the chance went outside and I made some mistake because my mind was on my people, not thinking about the penalty.
“When I missed against Palestine, in my mind I was thinking not to shoot the penalty, but I took it and I missed.
“Against Iran, another chance came for me and I want to make a good picture. When I lose, there are some people who are happy and they put it in the newspaper. My people like me, but they say Younus is a big man and he can’t play anymore. I think any player who misses this, he stops, he kills himself in football. Maybe God helped me with this.
“I needed this so I can bring back confidence from my people for Younus Mahmood. They’re now all happy. I think I made this for my people.”
Mahmood has rarely lacked confidence throughout a career in which he has consistently scored vital goals for both club and country, and his self-belief allows him to take on the role of mentor in a young and inexperienced Iraq squad looking to emulate the heroes of 2007.
Then, Iraq pulled off one of the most audacious successes in the history of Asian football. But, says Mahmood, that was not the intention when the Iraqis arrived in Thailand ahead of the tournament, but a 3-1 win over Australia in their second group match changed the mood within the camp.
“Before 2007, the players came to the Asian Cup and they weren’t worried about the Asian Cup, they just came to play,” he says. “When we went to Thailand for the first time, seven days before the Asian Cup and the players came to play and then, after, go home and just play in the group.
“We played against Thailand, and after that we played against Australia. And when we won against Australia all the players said: ‘Why not win the Asian Cup? Why are we afraid? Why?’ It’s only 15 days and then we go back.
“Australia had a strong team and were playing for the first time in Asia and it was better for us to play against Australia and not be afraid. We won 3-1 and the players said, why not win this Cup?
“This is the same as 2007. The players played against Jordan and we won 1-0 and then we played Japan. We have young players and it’s their first time playing at the Asian Cup. They played against Japan and lost 1-0 but they said, ‘We played against Japan, we lost 1-0 but we had the chance to score.’ They were afraid before this game but after they were better.
“We played against Palestine, now against Iran. It was different than 2007 because we won against Australia. But when we played against Iran, they were thinking they could do something at the Asian Cup.”
When Iraq lifted the AFC Asian Cup in Jakarta with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia, Mahmood became the most coveted striker in Asian football; eight years later, he came into Australia 2015 unattached to any club.
But while others might see that as a problem, Mahmood has chosen to eschew convention and devote all his energies to succeeding with the Iraqis.
“Clubs from Qatar came for me, Al Khor, Al Wakra and some others, some in Emirates, in Saudi Arabia, China, I think in Malaysia and also in Australia, but I don’t like it, I stop,” he says.
“(Former Iraq coach Hakeem Shaker) called me to come back, but I said to him I don’t need to play in a club. The time is very close, the Gulf Cup, the Asian Games, and with the national team. I give my time just for the national team.
“They have a club for me, but I don’t like to play. You don’t have time for the national team. I have a club, but I don’t like to play.
“Maybe, if the coach asks me to play in World Cup qualifying, I will go to a club. It’s a problem for some players. I don’t say it’s good. But our physical coach, he says my body is different to other players and if I sit for two months, three months, when I come back, I come back fast.
“I’m not the same as other players; I just need 15, 20 days. I go to China, I hadn’t played in three months and I play against China and I scored two. It’s not good for other players: I don’t say to do it, but for me it’s ok.
“I can’t play in Iraq. In Iraq I’m a star and I can’t go there, I can’t move in the street and this is my problem.
“But my God helps me all the time. When I go somewhere he helps me and I think my God likes me and he helps me all the time.
“The game against China, the last game (in qualifying), all the newspapers and TV they said I was finished and I should stop but the coach said he knew I could make something, so I went and played against China and we did something and we go to the Asian Cup.
“I thank God. I hope he likes me and he helps me all the time. And I want him to help me at the Asian Cup, to be the same as in 2007 and that we take the Cup.”