Dick Advocaat spent only three months as head coach of Iraq before stepping down on Tuesday, but the Dutchman believes that the team still have a chance of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, although the UAE will take some beating.
After the first six games in Group A in the final round of qualification, Iran and South Korea virtually have the top two spots, which offer automatic berths in Qatar next November, sewn up.
Iraq are in fifth place, just two points off the UAE in third, the spot that offers a play-off route to the World Cup.
“We were unlucky with the four draws,” Advocaat told Arab News. “We should have beaten Lebanon instead of drawing 0-0 (in October), and if we had those extra two points then the situation is a little different. Losing to Iran and South Korea can always happen, but in the other games we were the better team.”
The job of leading Iraq to a first World Cup since the country’s debut appearance in 1986 now falls to Advocaat’s former assistant Zeljko Petrovic, who will take temporary charge of the team.
Advocaat, a three-times Netherlands coach, believes that his former team the UAE are the ones to beat for Iraq.
“The Emirates are the best in the group, aside from Korea and Iran, and I think they will finish third. But Iraq have four games to go, so you never know. There is talent in the team,” he said.
Being in charge of Iraq was a frustrating experience at times for the well-traveled tactician, who was based in Europe until the games came along in Iraq’s temporary home of Qatar.
“It was always a very short time before the game,” said the former boss of Belgium, Russia and Serbia. “We arrived together on Sunday and then the game is on Thursday. The players were good and the mentality was good, but it takes more time and training to get the team to where we wanted to be. But, then, at the same time, you have to get results immediately. They are in a transitional period. I can only say positive things about the people there, though they expect you to win almost every game, which is not always possible.”
Getting to know the players was a challenge.
“I only went to the Middle East for the games. My two assistants were always there,” said Advocaat. “When I started, I saw all the videos, but you can only see the quality when you see the players in front of you. The defense and midfield were OK, but in attack we didn’t have the quality we needed and that is why we had so many draws.”
There were also accusations that coaching staff were giving the 74-year-old incorrect information about the availability or willingness of some overseas-based players to represent the Lions of Mesopotamia.
“I totally disagree with that,” Advocaat said. “The staff were great, and I have very good eyes as a coach and can see quickly if players have the quality or the right attitude or not. I brought in new players from Sweden and England, and I didn’t see any problems with the players at all.”
However, there is still work to be done before Iraq can return to the top of the continental table.
“The standard of the local competition is not that high, unfortunately. The good thing is that there are three games in the Arab Cup where they can try the younger players. That is important as the U-23 team have done really well and they can use that in the future.”
Advocaat, who was in charge of South Korea at the 2006 World Cup, added: “The people at the federation know what needs to be done. Teams like South Korea are so far away, and Iraq have to change a lot of things to catch up . They need tougher competition, better pitches, coaches and so on. If they keep working, it will happen.”
Maybe not during Advocaat’s career, however. The former PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord boss came out of retirement to take the job, but while there may not be many more teams to manage, he is not quite ready to return to the quiet life just yet.
“I am 74 now and I have learned not to say, ‘this is my last job.’ But I will not work at a club again.”