The Lion Heart PELÉ OF DIBBIS
Iraq’s national side is known to its loyal supporters as the Lions of Mesopotamia – a term first coined during the team’s heroics at the 2004 Olympic Games. Their talismanic No.10, Younis Mahmoud, was one of those young lions in Athens, and twelve years on, the Iraqi captain is the only remaining Lion, standing amongst a fledgling pride of cubs, eyeing another World Cup adventure – his last ambition. This will be Younis Mahmoud’s fourth World Cup campaign. Previously, towards the end of the last World Cup qualifying campaign, the striker announced his retirement from competitive football at the tender age of 30. It is predicted this will be his final year as a football player.
Younis Mahmoud fulfilled all his football dreams for Iraq, but qualifying for the World Cup remains the one obstacle that continues to prove unattainable. This is his last chance to make it happen. ,
The striker’s humble beginnings saw him play on the grassless pitches of his beloved provincial hometown of Dibbis. Twenty years on, he is and will always be remembered as one of Asia’s best ever players – Iraq’s first million dollar footballer. The third all-time top scorer and most capped player is a legend in war-torn Iraq, a symbol of the country’s success and one of the few players in the world who would be guaranteed a place in his national team despite not being on the books of a professional football club. Younis is now a bit-part member at the club where he made his name in the Iraqi league.
PELÉ OF DIBBIS
There have been persistent rumours of the Iraqi captain’s real age over the past years. The previous Iraqi coach Akram Salman has been public on the issue, often heard on Iraqi State television stating the player is around 35 or 36 years old. The story goes that his real age was revealed to the coach when the player was getting married and instead of using his civil identity card, he produced his passport, which is unusual in Iraq. Another indicator of his real age is that Younis performed his national service in the Iraqi Army in 1997 when he turned 18.
Younis Mahmoud Khalaf was born on February 18, 1979 in Dibbis, Bey Hassan in the province of Kirkuk. The son of a deputy policemen at a local the Energy Police Department was known as Pelé in his local area and fans from Dibbis would often come up to him and tell him he should be playing at a higher level. The young Younis would smile and laugh at the comments, not believing he could make it as a player. Today Younis owns the largest house in his own town, a mansion, built a mosque and started his own football school – not bad for someone who only completed primary school.
His modest beginnings came in Dibbis, where he played for his local neighbourhood side after being bribed with two falafel sandwiches and 1000 dinars to get him to play. He never liked football because of the training involved and his father, a former local footballer, use to beat him to get him to play. He would turn up to play for his side and score goals. Much like today with Iraq.
The second eldest of twelve children, Younis left school early to work as a labourer in the city of Tikrit to help his large family pay the bills – he did this without the knowledge of his own father. He was only found out after his school asked his father why Younis had been absent.
Younis played football in his youth, however his first love was fishing and basketball. The youngster was often going out to basketball practice in the evenings and then fishing in the night, sometimes sleeping along the local riverbank. He played at shooting guard beside the point guard, often used by his coach as part of the team’s fast break tactic, and when the team attacked, they use to pass to Younis to score. He was considered one of the best young players in his province and was offered a contract to play for Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya’s basketball team, but turned it down.
Younis played basketball for Kahraba Al-Dibbis in the first and second division and their football team, where his mentor and coach Muwafaq Nour-Al-Deen took him under his wing. His coach and eventual manager pushed Younis’ career from the lowly depths of the fourth division to the captaincy of the national team.
While other fathers would beat their sons not to play football, Younis’ father would take the opposite approach, instead beating his son in order to get him practicing. His father would also be the first person supporting him on the sidelines. In 1996, Younis, with his father’s heavy handed ‘support’, had started to play regularly for his local side.
It was Muwafaq that changed Younis’ mind about pursuing a career in football. One day, his coach sat him down and told him he could not continue playing two sports and told him to choose between them. Muwafaq wanted him to play football and so did his father, but Younis loved basketball.
However Muwafaq expressed the opinion that there was no money in basketball in Iraq, and with his family looking for financial stability, they decided Younis should concentrate on football and began to carve out a career for him in the game. Over the next three months, Younis was with the coach and the team, eating, training and playing. The coach had big plans for the youngster, and told him he would first play for Kirkuk, and then go onto Baghdad, which he eventually did with Al-Talaba. It was only after that he was turned down during his first trial at Al-Shurta by non-other than Ahmed Radhi!
Recently the legendary duo have been involved in a public spate after Younis’ comment that he would have qualified for four World Cups had he been playing in Ahmed Radhi’s era. Al-Zawraa fans, where Ahmed Radhi was a legend, took exceptions to his remarks and pelted him with bottles and stones during a recent league game between Talaba and Al-Zawraa. They even unveiled a banner telling Younis that the only way he would play in the World Cup would be on his PlayStation!
BAGHDAD TO DOHA
At Baghdad-based Al-Talaba, one of Iraq’s top clubs, Younis flourished and became a household name, netting a hat-trick against his former club Kirkuk in his first match for the club, and then going on to win a league and cup double. He also went on to make his international debut in his first professional season.
Younis became one of Asia’s sought after strikers after the 2003 war and moved to the UAE and then Qatar, where he would score 131 goals in 188 matches in nine years. However while at Al-Gharrafa, where he became Iraq’s first one million-dollar footballer, the striker almost left the Emirates following a dispute over his contract demands.
At the time, the Qatar Stars League had a wage cap for Arab players set at $600,000-700,000 US. Younis, having won the top scorers’ award, along with titles and cups, felt he was worth more than what he was being offered and told the club’s owners that ’this is what I want and if you don’t give it to me, I won’t play’.
The top Qatari football authorities first insisted that the player could not be given the amount as he was an Arab player, however Younis maintained that he was a player with the abilities exceeding that of any foreign or Arab player in the league and the Qataris eventually backed down. Younis was given the contract he wanted and felt he deserved, and over the next seven seasons, he was paid the same as any top foreign based professionals in Qatar.
A natural inhibitor
Younis told fans that they should be patient with the younger players, such as Mohanad Abdul-Rahim and Amjad Radhi, however, with Younis in the squad, Iraqi coaches have been reluctant to give a new forward any extended run in the team. He has long been seen as an obstacle for the progression of young strikers in the national team with his team-mate and fellow 2007 Asian Cup winner Basim Abbas once remarking that Younis’ presence in the side had “destroyed a generation of Iraqi strikers.”
Fans expect the team’s main striker to be ready-made, however that was never the case with any Iraqi striker of the past sixty years. Despite people stating otherwise, Younis was not a regular starter in the national team after he made his debut in 2002, and it was only three years later with 23 games under his belt that he asserted his position in the team. In 2006, Younis finally dislodged Iraq’s regular striker Razzaq Farhan. It was a similar case for Ahmed Radhi, one of Iraq’s greatest ever footballers, who wasn’t a first team regular until 1985, having made his debut three year previously. His record for Iraq up a mere 2 goals in 21 games before he cemented his position as a starter during the 1986 World Cup qualifying rounds.
Many fans have already written off the likes of Amjad Radhi and Mohanad Abdul-Rahim with the national team after their pitiful goal return. However, they both have enough time to make it as national team starters. The table below is a clear indication that no striker other than Younis has been given sufficient minutes as Iraq’s main striker – so much so that the striker’s position is often referred to as the ‘Younis role’. Had Younis been given the same number of minutes as other strikers post-2015, Younis would not even muster a goal, having averaged a goal every 192 minutes. The nearest striker to have played anywhere near that amount of minutes last year was Amjad Radhi with 131 minutes. Younis was also the only striker to play a full ninety minutes in 2015.
|3 mins (1 game)|
|Mohanad Abdul-Rahim||23 mins (2 games, 1 goal)|
|Alaa Abdul-Zahra||53 mins (2 games, 1 goal)|
|Marwan Hussein||109 mins (4 games)||Started 1 game as main striker|
|Amjad Radhi||131 mins (2 games)||Started 2 games as main striker|
|Younis Mahmoud||1156 mins (15 games, 6 goals)||
Started 13 games as main striker
Younis will step down this year and with no ready-made or experienced replacement in the works, Iraq will face the next couple of years with a problem in the goal scoring department similar to what Iran faced once Ali Daei retired. This is due to Iraq’s coaching staff failing to empower much needed confidence in young strikers once they make it to the national side. Instead, many have been forced out of position as has been the case with Alaa Abdul-Zahra and Mustafa Karim. Otherwise, strikers are continuously dropped after a single outing with the national team, as we have seen with Amjad Radhi, Marwan Hussein, Mohanad Abdul-Rahim and Hamadi Ahmed. The long-held view that Younis Mahmoud is irreplaceable will come back to haunt the national team in the long-run, and the day will come when fans will scorn the long line of coaches who failed to look to the future and give youth a chance, instead relying on Younis Mahmoud who, even now, with his meagre six goals in 15 games in 2015, is still seen as the answer to Iraq’s World Cup qualification hopes.
A Bit Part role
The Iraqi captain with two failed marriages behind him and an uneasy relationship with large sections of Iraqi fans. Many a time has he contemplated giving up football and retiring for a second time, but World Cup ambition are keeping Younis from calling it a day, even if it’s as a bit-part role in Iraq’s World Cup campaign under Yahya Alwan. The manager rating Younis highly enough to describe the veteran’s presence in the team is “a necessity”.
Younis has nothing left to achieve or prove to anyone, having won dozens of league championships and trophies in a glittering career and topped the goal scoring charts in the Qatari Stars League on numerous occasions. He has amassed a wealth reported to be near $12 million dollars and become the Iraqi national team’s 3rd all-time top scorer and a record caps holder – 145 matches and counting. But the one thing that is keeping him from retiring once and for all is the World Cup.
Next stop, the 2018 World Cup and then the Iraqi Football Association presidency after the finals in Russia. As ever with ‘Al-Safah’ Younis Mahmoud, the Iraqi captain will continuous to aim for the stars.
This feature was written by Hassanin Mubarak, from the magnificent IraqSport Archive. You can contact Hassanin via email or find him on Twitter, where you can find the latest news and statistics on the Iraqi national team. We thank Hassanin for his contribution to IraqFootball.me and look forward to working closely with him in future projects.