Iraq has had several footballers plying their trade in Europe, some as early as the 1920s in Turkey and Austria, but it’s true that non have gone onto play in the major leagues. One of the best players in the 50s and 60s, Ammo Baba, was in England in 1958 looking to play for a club, with Notts County, Chelsea and Fulham interested but returned due to the revolution and never got the chance to play in Europe. The first Iraqi footballer to play in the top flight in Europe was Ghassan Heamed Raouf, who fled Iraq in 1993 with his brother Bassam, a national player. They first traveled to Bucharest, where they joined Sportul Studenţesc however only Ghassan played for the first team and as a result became the first Iraqi to play in the top division in Europe. Bassam left Romania and played for the reserve teams of Västerås SK and Assyriska FF in Sweden, and a year later his brother joined him at Assyriska FF and would play for the club until 2007 guiding them from the fourth division to the Allsvenskan, the top division in Sweden.
In the 70s and 80s, there were a host of Iraqi players that could have played in the top leagues in Europe, but the Iraq FA would have never sanctioned their transfers especially after Saddam’s son Uday became President of the FA in the mid-Eighties. In 1988 top Uruguayan club Peñarol offered $1m for Ahmed Radhi after he had won the Asian Player of the Year award but the striker was playing for Iraq and was a regular goalscorer for Uday’s club Al-Rasheed, so he was more valuable to him than $1m and the offer was declined. The same happened a year later when Barcelona were interested in Laith Hussein, another Al-Rasheed player, after he had helped the Iraq Under-20s to top their group at the 1989 World Youth Championship beating Norway, Argentina and Spain. These players were called national treasurers but were used as tools by the regime. For a player to transfer abroad, he would have to turn professional, and this was only allowed by the Iraq FA in 1993 mainly because of the economic climate in the country after the 1990 Gulf War and for Uday it was another way to make money, 60% of a player’s contract had to be handed over to the FA.
Why have we not seen more Iraqi footballers in Europe?
To put it simply, it’s because of a lack of hunger, the scarcity of opportunities and a cultural element. If you have an offer of a $1m US annual contract living in familiar surroundings being a starter in the team and winning titles or a contract offer of half that amount, where you’re not certain of a game, which one would you choose? Players have to think of their families and their earnings. Younis and Nashat have made fortunes playing in the Gulf Cup, and they left school without any qualifications. There’s also the question of agents. The agent (and there is only one registered Iraqi football agent with FIFA) of most of Iraq’s top national players has links in the Middle East, and it is only when club officials from Europe show an interest that an Iraqi player moves there. Several Iraqi players were on the books of Apollon in Cyprus. The reason, the club were coached by former Iraqi coach Bernd Stange and their president was an Iraqi. Iraq needs a Pini Zahavi or Mino Raiola. Football is about contacts. Look at PSG left back Maxwell, a good player, who managed to play for some of Europe’s top teams. I don’t think he would’ve got the opportunity to play at some of those clubs if not for a good agent. Iraq also needs a player that has the hunger to graft to succeed in the top European leagues. At the end of the 2004 Olympic Games, Qusai Munir was offered a contract to play for PAOK Salonika but turned it down because he felt he wouldn’t be able to fit in the lifestyle. Goalkeeper Mohammed Kasid signed for one Cypriot club and returned homesick after only one game. It’s also a question about the player, is he hungry to succeed in Europe? Nashat spent one season at FC Twente, making appearances as a sub in the last quarter of matches until an injury set-him back. But after a change in coach, the club let him go and what did Nashat do? He returned to the Gulf. Maybe if he had an agent that could’ve found him a club in Europe, he would have stayed but it displayed a lack of desire. Nashat was good enough and talented enough and everyone who saw him play could see it.
Football today is all about agents and contacts, however Iraq currently only has one FIFA-registered football agent and most of his deals are conducted with clubs in the Middle East. It will take time for top European clubs to notice Iraqi football talents, Hawar Mulla Mohammed did well in the Champions League a few years ago with Anorthosis Famagusta and hopefully one day another Iraqi player will impress in Europe, and then more European clubs will start to sign Iraqi players. It only takes one player to become a success before other clubs look for another.