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The world watches an intense scene involving two regional powers. Iraq and South Korea. The audience is treated to a spectacle that eventually sees the Arab state prevail over their rivals. The game ends two all, with the Young Lions of Mesopotamia triumphing on penalties, and off to the semi final stage of the FIFA Under 20 World Cup 2013.

Few viewers can reconcile this Iraq from a nation the Failed States Index classified among the five most unstable countries in the world, during the period 2005 through 2008.

The Young Lions, also known as Montakhab Al-Shabab (Youth Team), hail from a nation that has since 2003 seen more than 370,000 citizens displaced, numbers of internal refugees rise to 4.7 million, a whopping 16% of the nation's population. The cost of this conflict has seen in excess of 32,031 United States combat fatalities, and the cost of funding that war rising to an estimated $6 billion.

It is such a backdrop that makes Iraq's progress to the last four of this tournament all the more remarkable. From Group E comprising of England, Egypt and Chile the Lions prevailed in a pulsating quarter final, to earn the right to play Uruguay.

In the words of Italian renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci, 'learn to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.'

How does a nation of 31,129,225 (2012 estimate) manage such a feat as I have described, while peaceful states like Kenya consistently underachieve? What is it that Kenyan football can learn from Iraq?


Kenya at 44 million (2012 estimate) offers a population that exceeds Iraq's by more than 13 million. Iraq's oil offers an edge with the two states worlds apart in terms of GDP per capita income. Iraq's averages to $4,272 comparing with the East African state's paltry $976.

Matters Football

The world football governing body FIFA ranks Iraq at 97th, trumping Kenya's 123rd position. The two countries are governed in matters football by the Iraqi Football Federation and Federation Kenya Football (FKF), with the sport established in the two countries in 1948 and 1960 respectively.

It is remarkable that before 1974, only teams from the country's capital Baghdad took part in the country's elite football division. The country's first attempt at youth football hails back to 1975, more weight to the impressive growth of youth football in the Arab state.

International Achievements

Iraq has participated in the FIFA World Cup edition of 1986 (held in Mexico), losing all three matches in the group stage to Paraguay, Belgium and Mexico. The country also took part in the 1908 Olympics, with a record of two group stage appearances (1984 and 1988), the last eight (1980) and a semi final appearance in 2004. Regionally, the Iraqi mens national team first took part in the Asian Cup in 1956, winning the trophy in 2007.

Kenya in comparison has never gone beyond the first round of the Africa Cup of Nations. The country's first participation was in 1972, exiting from the first round in the 1972, 1988, 1990, 1992 and 2004 editions. The country has never qualified for the Olympics or FIFA World Cup


1. VISION: One of the distinguishing features of any progressive initiative is vision. On 4th October 2011 the Iraqi Minister for Youth and Sports approached FC Barcelona with an invitation to help in setting up youth academies in the country. The academies will be run by Spanish coaches, who will train local coaches and players and help improve the sport's standard. Barcelona's rivals Real Madrid also have plans to set up academies in three cities, Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniah, part of the club's drive to open up 190 such institutions worldwide.

2. INVESTMENT AND FUNDING: How does that translate for the East African nation? There is the common complain that very little is seen of FIFA funds once they reach the country's football authorities.

Kenya is still at the stage of always fundraising to meet the team's expenses whenever a tournament is involved. It is common to see rich benefactors, both individuals and corporate sponsors come forward to support the team, promising a windfall should the Harambee Stars excel. Why not a longer term solution such as a permanent fund to cater for the country's sporting ambassadors?

The United Kingdom makes use of the country's national lottery (akin to the Kenya National Sweepstakes here) to fund all sports initiatives. Such ideas can be replicated to aid out the team. Such an idea would replace short term solutions like the 'Mbao for Bao' campaign s een recently in June 2013.

3. PASSION: The case could be argued for what really drives football administrators in this country. How many truly passionate football authorities are there within the FKF ranks?

4. STANDARDS: Another question is why Football Kenya Federation does not focus on improving the standards of coaching in this country and structuring youth football better. A comparison with West and North Africa makes for pathetic self reflection. Ghana's Black Starlets remain the only African side to ever win the FIFA Under 20 World Cup edition, and this year have made it yet again to the last four of this prestigious tournament.

There is no shortcut to preparation and youth development, an area Kenya is severely deficient in. The country's situation is no better even regionally, with neighbors like Sudan and war torn Somalia outdoing us in this regard going by recent tournaments.

5. EXPOSURE: How well exposed are Kenya's youth footballers to international football? It is not uncommon to find Nigerian and Ghanaian youth plying their trade in countries as far off as Belgium, France and England. This, coupled with early exposure to international football best practices helps these players develop even beyond football.

6. PROGRESSION: A common problem seen in the bigger footballing clubs abroad is the challenge of youth prospects graduating into the senior team. How is the local football federation planning to tap into grassroots football and ensure a constant stream of players into the national team setup? This is one area that needs serious attention. A country like Spain is full of squad depth, with each playing position attracting three or four quality personnel to fill it. This comes from a well developed culture of clubs producing youth prospects good enough to graduate to senior football.

7. ROLE OF CLUBS: In countries such as Ghana, clubs like Liberty Professionals and Hearts of Oak have reputed academies that constantly cultivate young players with the aim of cherry picking the best for the first team, or selling potential and thus generating revenue. Few countries owe their national team's strength to strong academies like Egypt (Al Ahly and Zamalek) and the famed Asec Abidjan academy in Cote d'Ivoire.

Community clubs like Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards can help greatly by tapping into regional networks, which also form Kenya's footballing hotbeds of the colonial Nyanza and Western provinces. Each premier league club should in turn establish networks in their immediate local area, for example Thika and environs for clubs like Thika United.


It is greatly disheartening to see nations like Iraq and Somalia (regionally) excel despite significant hardships that Kenya has fortuitously managed to avoid. It could be argued that without the bitterly cold North Wind the Vikings would not have excelled as they did, but it also diminishes excuses for countries that have stable environments.

This is definitely a challenge worth taking up. Back to Leonardo da Vinci, there is still opportunity in Kenya's current state of affairs. Iraq also provides great hope that anything is possible with determination, vision and a little elbow grease.


Images used with permission.

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