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Maher Khenfir (IRQ)
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More international experience to benefit Iraq and Al Shorta says Khenfir

BAGHDAD - 2016 was the year Iraq shook up the Asian basketball order with their impressive performances in the FIBA Asia Challenge and FIBA Asia Champions Cup. The national team finished an impressive fourth in the FIBA Asia Challenge, highlighted by a momentous 85-79 win over China in the Quarter-Finals. The country's representatives in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup - Al Shorta BC - also turned a lot of heads, winning 4 of their 7 games for a strong top five result.

These seem to signal a resurgence in Iraqi basketball, and at the forefront of it all is Al Shorta BC and their own head tactician, Maher Khenfir. The 47-year-old Tunisian mentor was appointed head coach of Al Shorta BC three years ago, and he has not stopped working on improving the club's standing not just in the country but in the continent, too.

"Since I was appointed head of the team, we aimed to make Al Shorta BC the best team in Iraq and to have an honorable ranking in Asia," he said. "We have worked very hard while insisting on the fundamentals of basketball, which was the weak point of the Iraqi players."

Khenfir enjoyed strong support from Al Shorta's management early on, and that has been a big part of the team's recent success. Al Shorta BC have been pretty stable since then, and though last year's triumphs were impressive, Khenfir knows there's still some ways to go for Al Shorta - and Iraqi basketball in general - to fulfill their true potential.

"After 3 years of working with a stable technical staff, we succeeded in making a big splash during the international competitions," he added. "I think that with this same team, we can go further knowing that our players still have a good margin of progression in the future."

But to accomplish that, Khenfir acknowledges that Iraq's top talents need to be more constantly exposed to a higher level of competition, and that means gaining more international experience.

"During the last two years, our local players have participated in 4 official international tournaments: 2 Arabic tournaments and 2 Asian tournaments," Khenfir beamed. "Our players have been excellent, they have acquired a certain level of international experience, and for this our players are targeted by the Iraqi national team."

That is a good sign, but Khenfir knows Iraqi basketball is still far from where it needs to be. As good as they were last year, they will need to step it up even more now that they have qualified for the FIBA Asia Cup later this year. Khenfir knows that any of the players on Al Shorta who will be called up to the national side will need to put in even more sweat equity.

"It is sure that we will continue to work very hard to push the team to be more and more efficient," he said.

"But also Iraqi teams must maximize their participation in international tournaments to gain more experience." - Maher Khenfir

For now, however, Khenfir is happy that Al Shorta BC have shot up all the way to the top of the Iraqi club league standings.

"Currently, our club is first in the championship standings," he shared. "Out of 15 games played, we have 14 wins and only one defeat, and we also have a great chance of winning the championship this season."

Should that be a harbinger of the future, more good things are certainly in store for both Al Shorta BC and the Iraqi national team.