With the transfer window upon us and a large number of Iraqi footballers likely to be on the move this summer, we wanted to examine the multitude of reasons why only a limited number of Iraqi footballers have ever transferred to the top European leagues. This has always been the case with Iraqi footballers and includes even the ‘Golden Generation’ of players who defied all odds to win the Asian Cup in 2007. There have been some exceptions to the rule, with Ali Adnan currently at Udinese of Serie A, and Nashat Akram enjoying a short spell at FC Twente of the Eredivisie under Steve McClaren. Yaser Kasim, Brwa Nouri and Osama Rashid are three of many expat Iraqis currently playing in Europe who, naturally, would faced many different challenges to the players whose careers started in Iraq. Rather, this article will focus mostly on the contributing factors that prevent players from the Iraqi league transitioning to Europe’s finer leagues.
1 – Government Intervention
Although this issue is no longer affecting Iraqi footballers, it was once a huge obstacle that limited a large number of players from pursuing careers in Europe. Ahmed Radhi and Laith Hussein were both considered the best of their generation and political factors prevented them from joining foreign clubs at one point during their careers.
Both players were tied to Al-Rasheed SC, a club founded by Udai Saddam in 1983.
In the case of Ahmed Radhi, it was Uruguayan club Peñarol who came knocking with an offer of one million US dollars in 1988. Radhi had recently won the much coveted Asian Player of The Year award and was quickly making a name for himself on the international scene. The offer was rejected and striker was forced to remain at the club.
Laith Hussein suffered the same incident a year later when Barcelona made an approach for the player, who was also sending shockwaves across the footballing world. In the 1989 World Cup Youth Championship, his efforts and goal contributed towards Iraq’s first place finish in the group stages with 3 wins from 3 – Norway, Argentina and Spain were the opposition. Laith’s reputation was growing but Uday’s club once again closed the door on any foreign offers.
Both players were considered by the regime as valuable assets that must remain within Iraq at the time. Failure to keep the best players in Iraq was seen as a sign of weakness and by forcing players to stay, the Iraqi league was made to look competitive in comparison to foreign leagues. Additionally, player’s looking to move abroad were forced into contracts containing clauses that resulted in 60% of their wages being taxed by Saddam and his Ba’athi party. This remained an obvious deterrent to players from seeking careers outside of Iraq.
2 – Discipline and Mentality
Although government intervention ceases to be an issue with the current generation of Iraqi footballers, other areas of the game continue to be an enormous obstacle that hamper our countrymen from making significant progress. You would think that, in this day and age, with footballers being idolised worldwide and paid handsomely too, most Iraqi players would do their best to earn careers abroad and work their way up. Instead, a large number of our players prefer the easy ride of staying put and enjoying a stable salary with little effort.
How many of our players would accept the challange of moving abroad and not starting every game, whilst having to train intensely every day in order to work their way into the first team? Instead, players prefer to turn up late to training and put in a half-arsed shift but still be guaranteed a starting spot every week. There have been many highly credible sources who claim that the likes of Nashat Akram and Younis Mahmoud would often attend training late, sit on the sideline on their phone during a training session and regularly attend training camps significantly overweight. Although iraqfootball.me cannot verify these claims, the frequency in which they are articulated remain nonetheless worrying.
Other factors relate to players being out of their comfort zone in foreign countries. Hawar Mulla Mohammed had a successful spell in Cyprus with Anorthosis Famagusta, where he became the first Iraqi every to play and score in the Uefa Champions League.
However, numerous other players lacked the bravery and dedication shown by Hawar to fight for their spot abroad. Nashat Akram told Iraqfootball.me in an exclusive interview that his biggest career regret was that he gave up too early following his turbulent time with FC Twente. Iraqi goalkeeper Mohammed Gassid cancelled his contract with his Cypriot club only one match into his deal after complaining about homesickness, whereas Qusay Munir turned down numerous offers to play in Europe citing his inability to cope with the different style of play as the main factor. These examples highlight a clear mental barrier that has prevented good footballers from developing their careers even further.
Not many players are disciplined enough either to maintain a strict diet, free from smoking, shisha and late nights out with their friends. Especially in this day and age, where fitness is absolutely key in European football leagues. Simply pay attention to the Iraqi league and notice how many of the players walk around the pitch with a clear gut hanging out – it’s embarrassing to see.
3 – Greed
For some players, money is a huge motivator. This is not to say that money is the most important factor for them, however, questions have to be asked when a player will choose to stay in the Gulf rather than pursue a career internationally simply because they would have to take a pay cut. There are many instances of this, including one notable and highly respected Iraqi defender who turned down a promising transfer to China in order to pursue a higher salary in the Gulf.
It is understandable that these individuals are human after all and will look to provide for their families. However, their decisions remain questionable due to the simple fact that they avoid looking at the long term gain that comes with playing abroad. Rather than taking a risk, making important relationships and working their way up the ranks, the players instead choose short term gain but fail to progress anywhere afterwards. This is more appetising than eventually earning substantial pay after working hard and improving as a footballer.
Players in the Iraqi league receive on average $120,000 a year. This is significantly greater if they play in the Gulf. There is little incentive for them to leave their comfortable lifestyle behind them in order to pursue careers in Europe for little to no extra financial reward.
4 – The Iraqi League
Suffering from delusions of grandeur, Iraqis and the media will defend the quality of the Iraqi league incessantly. However, the truth is laid out to see every time a fixture takes place in the league – poor quality, little attendance and depleted facilities. For players to progress and challange rival footballers from abroad in securing transfers to Europe, Iraqi players must be playing in a competitive league. Instead, they are forced to play their matches in empty stadiums on pitches that are hazardous to their health.
The lack of training facilities is also a huge factor, which prevents the players from improving outside of the pitch – this includes training pitches, state-of-the-art quality gyms and medical equipment. This all stems from a lack of funding, which in itself roots back to corruption on a government level. Regardless, it remains an issue and this misallocation of resources continues to stop Iraqi footballers from fulfilling their potential.
5 – Media Coverage & Football Agents
There is currently little to no chance of a player being discovered in the Iraqi league by a foreign club, unless they play for the national team. This stems from the lack of media coverage of Iraqi matches domestically and abroad. In addition to this, the security scares in the region make it impossible for scouts to travel to Iraq and monitor players first hand. Given that this is the situation, it is more important than ever before that the Iraqi league is publicised across different media platforms internationally.
In addition to this, the lack of proper football scouts in Iraq also prevents players from signing with foreign clubs. Agents play the role of negotiators on behalf of a players during transfer deals, sometimes even offering their clients to possible suitors in an attempt to find a suitable club.
The lack of professional agents in Iraq means players are unrepresented and unable to make contact with foreign clubs who may be interested in signing them. As a result, they remain in the Iraqi league and would only ever be able to move to the Gulf if one of their clubs came calling. To combat this, the FA must rework the entire league and instil a system where football agents are trained, developed and hired to represent footballers in order to help them fulfil their potential abroad. Sherko Kareem has been one of few players to move directly from an Iraqi club to Europe, but his move from Al-Shorta to Grasshopper Club Zürich was conducted based mostly on his performances for Iraq in the 2013 Fifa U17 World Cup.
This article was co-written by IraqFootball.me and Reda Al-Taay. Reda is a professional football agent operating in Sydney, Australia and works closely with numerous Iraqi players. You can contact him on Instagram or using the comment section below. We thank Reda for his contribution to IraqFootball.me and look forward to working closely with him on future projects.