Having recently been called up for Iraq’s U23 side, IraqFootball.me was fortunate enough to interview Abdulla Al-Kalisy. Only 21 years of age, this was the first time the youngster has been involved with the Iraqi national team at any level. We sat down and discussed his career to date, including his time with Iraq and playing first team football in New Zealand. Abdulla’s energy and love for the game was evident the moment we started talking. Here’s what was discussed:
– Childhood –
I’m the oldest of three boys – my younger brothers Yousif (20) and Laith (16) are also big footballers. Both my parents are originally from Baghdad, but they moved to Amman in 1995. I was born a year later, in 1996.
We lived in Jordan for a few years before eventually immigrating to New Zealand. We stayed there for six years, before my family returned to the Middle East. I lived with my family in Dubai up until I was 15.
I’m fortunate because my parents let me pursue my own career, as long as I also studied at the same time. Football took over my life and they were okay with this. Instead of going out with friends, I would also be playing football. My fun was going out and playing football matches with random people. I remember one time I never did my homework and my parents never let me go out to play football – I cried and learnt my lesson from then on.
My parents made sure a big part of my upbringing is talking Arabic at home and being fully immersed in my culture and origins. This has been really important for me, because it means I can really connect with other Iraqis – especially in the national team training camps. Although I haven’t been to Iraq for many years, I still felt at home when I met the players because I could talk freely with them and we had much in common.
– Youth Football –
I played in many tournaments at an academy level whilst living in Dubai. Won top scorer and best player during my time playing for Al Shaab in the youth premier league. I was offered citizenship during this period to represent UAE but I turned it down, as my father wanted me to represent Iraq.
My team also got to play internationally, in Bahrain, Sweden and Denmark. I caught the attention of scouts during that time. They offered me the opportunity to have a trail at a Championship club, in England. Instead, I chose to sign for Shattuck St. Mary’s Athletics, in the US. This allowed me to finish high school and provided me with a full scholarship, which included paid accommodation, schooling and training facilities. I was an out and out winger for the majority of the games, but I could also play as a striker and as an attacking midfielder.
It was difficult to be alone and away from my family aged only 15, but I was happy as I could play football every day. I would wake up, train, eat, study at school, train again, eat, and then sleep. This cycle made it much easier to cope with being away from my family and helped improve me as a footballer.
The professional environment helped mould me into an adult. My coach then was incredible – Tim Carter – he’s currently the Academy Director of Minnesota United, in the MLS. Arriving in the US was a wakeup call, as I was previously a big fish in a small pond. I realised that there were thousands of top players working incredibly hard to make it as a footballer. I knew I was a good footballer but they made me realise how much harder I have to work in order to reach the top.
I worked harder than ever in my second year. My dream was to be playing football in Europe’s top leagues. I started waking up at 6am and heading to the gym before training, or doing ball work on my own – anything to give me an advantage on the football pitch.
The intensity that I trained at ended up injuring my groin. It took 6 months to properly heal. It was horrible. I felt that I was heading in the right direction in my career but this injury put everything on hold. I played a few times during that period, but my injury would keep coming back despite all my efforts in making a full recovery.
These injuries taught me a lot about my body and myself during this experience. I adjusted my food, training, strengthening exercises and rest periods until I made a full recover. Now I know how to deal with these problems in the future. I came back from my injury stronger than ever. The team did really well in the U18 MLS Cup during my time in the US. We came close in my first year by reaching the quarterfinals, but the second season, we lost in the final to NY Red Bulls. It was a last second winner and I couldn’t believe it.
After realising the lack of consistent football playing time would hamper my career, I left the US. I joined Al-Ahli Dubai F.C, after turning 18. In the league, only 3 expats were allowed in the game squad at one time. I was playing well in the reserves but never received an opportunity with the first team. I transferred over to Al Nasr, but unfortunately it was the same situation.
I decided to try my luck in Croatia, with trials for HNK Rijeka. It was a really good experience and I developed as a footballer. I spent a month with the reserves and the manager liked me, but he was pushed out of the club during midseason. He moved to Bosnia and the new manager didn’t want me at the club – he wanted a Croatian foundation in the squad and no expats.
Aged 19, I returned to Qatar to play for Al Sadd. I impressed during the trials and they offered me a 5-year contract. However, they wanted me to gain Qatari citizenship at the end of the five years, which I turned down again because I want to represent Iraq and nobody else.
– Playing In New Zealand –
I decided it’s best to return home to New Zealand. I did well with Waitekere City, before transferring to Auckland City. They’re a huge club and were doing really well, which meant that the competition was intense. I realised I would need to move to a different club in order to gain more game time, which will help my development.
Tasman United recently emerged as a franchise. I joined them this year with my brother, Yousif. It’s been really good as they have top players that have helped us progress. Paul Ifill played in the Premier League and shares his knowledge with us of the game. The coach is down to Earth and tells us what we need to do to improve. I’ve adjusted my game to be much more of an out and out winger, where I can utilise my dribbling, crossing and technique. This means that my height and frame isn’t too much of an issue when playing a direct style of football.
Tasman is a really small town. People will come up to me in the street and talk about the game. The kids here love football and the club, so they’d regularly come and watch. It’s a strong football community and we have a good fan base. This season has been up and down. We started the season well, but we’ve drifted off in the last few games. However, everyone in the club wants to make this work and we’re taking things very seriously to get back on top. We’re aiming for a top four finish to earn a playoff position.
– Iraq –
Whilst with Al Ahly, I was put in touch with the national team who was managed by Yahya Alwan. I trained with Iraq U23 in Dubai during late 2015, where they were preparing for the Olympic qualifiers.
The football at the camp was different to Dubai and the US – it was mixture of both technical and physical football, which I loved. I did really well and impress the manager. However, Yahya Alwan moved to the first team soon after and I never heard back from him or anyone in the national team for some while.
The Olympic team called me up once I arranged my Iraqi passport. They invited me to the training camp in Naja. We’ve had one friendly against Qatar, in Kuwait, and I’m disappointed that I never got to play. It’s been fantastic and I’m hoping I’ll get to show the manager and the Iraqi people just how good I am in the new few weeks. I’d love to go to AFC U23, because I can help the team win. I’m a different player to those in the squad, because I’ve experienced playing in a variety of league and my style differs to the rest.
The camp has been a lot of fun. We wake up, train and spent a lot of time with together. I’ve gotten to know pretty much everyone in the squad, because we’re a tightly knit group and we all joke around together. In training, we’re fully focused and looking to impress the manager. We’re all trying to help each other in training and there’s a great environment in the camp – call it ‘healthy competition’.
The coaches are brilliant and they know how to get the best out of the players. He has a specific way of playing and he makes this very clear to everyone.I’m a skilful left-winger who can make things happen in the final third of the pitch. I can beat players with pace or skills down the touchline, before crossing or cut in and having a shot with my right foot. I hope I’ll get an opportunity to play my part and help Iraq win the cup.
A huge thank you to Abdulla for his time and effort in making this interview possible. If you would like to follow him on social media, please find his details below:
Twitter – @Akalisy
Instagram – @aalkalisy