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Uri Levy

Slovenian legend to coach Iraq: This week in Middle East football

The contract is evaluated at $1.2m US dollars per year [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 September, 2018

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A Slovenian football superstar has been signed up as the head coach of the Lions of Mesopotamia in a three-year contract thought to be worth $1.2m per year.
Iraqi football has entered a new era this week, with the signing and presentation of the new national team coach - Srečko Katanec.

The Slovenian football hero has signed on to lead the Lions of Mesopotamia for the next three years, in a contract understood to be worth $1.2m per year.

In a press conference earlier this week, Katanec declared his vision and goals: "I don't have a magic wand, but I know, thanks to my experience, how to successfully develop the team."

The team will be playing at the forthcoming Asian Cup, in January in the UAE - but it will be too early to judge progress by then, he added.

"I told the FA that If they want immediate results in the Asian Cup, they can look for a new coach. I want to win everything, but we will go to this Asian Cup to see how the players respond to this kind of tournament," he said.

The Slovenian is a notable European football figure. He grew up in Slovenia in a family of Croatian descent. He played for Olimpija Ljublijana, Dinamo Zagreb, Partizan Belgrade and starred for the Yugoslavian national team in the 1980s and 1990s. He played in Stuttgart, Germany, and shone at Italian club Sampdoria for five long years, before he retired and switched to coaching.

As a coach, he worked at the Slovenia U21 team and Gorica, before taking over the Slovenian national team and leading them to impressive results at Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002. He continued on to Olympiacos, the Macedonia national team and then arrived in the Middle East when he signed to manage the UAE national team.

He returned to Slovenia for another spell in 2013, and now, after a year of rest, he has accepted the offer from the Iraqi FA.

The signing of Katanec has put a definitive end to one of the most surprising sagas in Iraqi football this year - the negotiations with Swedish coach Sven Goran Eriksson.

Eriksson was said to be Iraq's number one target for the job, but he turned the offer down, before meeting the Cameroonian FA - and eventually opted not to accept either offer.
 
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Katanec's take-over at the Iraqi national team has already seen the arrival of new technical staff.

As well as his assistants from Bosnia and Slovenia, and the local Ahamd Khalaf, to the surprise of the Iraqi football community, Katanec has brought his son, Oscar, to join the staff as a fitness coach.

Oscar, 24, is a certificated strength and conditioning coach, a certified personal trainer and a former motocross racer. He will work without receiving a salary. Still, his appointment raised eyebrows among Iraqi media circles.

Katanec will hope to reunite the Iraq national squad, and to use the momentum gained from the return of international football to the country, in order to build a solid team ahead of the Asian Cup. That said, his main aim is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar - a tournament that has recently been brought into focus in Iraqi football.

Last week, reports in Iraq and Lebanon claimed that, for the next two seasons, the Iraqi Premier League would be named "The Iraqi Q22 League", as part of an estimated $2m sponsorship deal with the Organising Committee of the World Cup in Qatar.

The new coach will need some time to make a team of this Iraqi generation. Bassim Qassim is a great coach, but in order to fulfil the potential of these players, the Iraqi FA must have patience and set aside time for grounding elementary principles.

Next to established players like Ali Adnan, Human Tariq, Alaa Abdul-Zahra and others, players such as Brwa Nouri, Mohannad Ali and Ali Faiz are knocking on the door - with Qatar 2022 being being a massive target for this generation of one of the most football passionate nations in Asia.

Katanec is not the only European star to take a coaching role in the region in the past week. Michel Salgado, a Real Madrid legend, has joined Mexican coach Javier Aguirre's staff in Egypt, and will help the Pharaohs in their quest to find African dominance and stability. 

International break  

Not long after the season has kicked off, it's time for the year's first international break - and many national teams from across the region are getting some game time.

While the UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and others will held friendlies in preparation for the Asian Cup in three months, the North African countries - Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia - will play in the 2019 AFCON qualifications.

Notable matches are Jordan vs Lebanon, Iraq vs Kuwait, Egypt vs Niger, and Palestine vs Qatar. You'll be able to keep up with all the games right here.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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