I moved to Sweden in 92 and loved it there. They treated me right and I was raised in a family where everything was about respect and learning. My parents were born in Ranya, Northern Iraq. Both speak fluent Arabic and Farsi. They instilled a lot of my culture in me from a young age even though I was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. It was part of the Soviet Union back then and we moved to Sweden when I was only two years old, in 1992. It was a foreign country but they gave us an opportunity to live a better life and we wanted to do what’s best for the country. We cared about understanding Sweden, the culture and their beliefs.
It was when I was 13 years old that I realised I was destined to be a footballer. Throughout my childhood, I had always trained and played with the group a year older than me from as young as five. I played double sessions most days, once with my age group and then with age group above me. This was a huge opportunity and allowed me to really develop. At a young age, it was all about having fun and enjoying myself. On the pitch, I was a wide midfielder. Fast, running at the defenders up and down the wing and sticking to the touchline – both on the left and right wing. My game has changed significantly since then as football in general has evolved. The way I played had to adapt to this. I’m more physical and I love to cut into midfield where I can dictate the game and the tempo from a central position. My career really started in BK Forward, where I played with Ahmed Yasin in the youth team whilst I was 14 or 15. When I turned 17, I started playing with the first team regularly after making my first team debut aged only 15. It was in 2007 where I scored 8 goals in 12 games that I established myself in senior football. Soon after, Malmo asked me to sign for them.
It was a huge move – I was 5 hours away from my hometown, Orebro. My family missed me a lot and it was hard for my parents but as much as I love them, I was never really homesick. I was so focused on succeeding in football that I didn’t think about anything else. I had a mission to play and develop further at this huge club – I just focused on football. I wanted to make something of myself so I can help my family and this drive made it much easier to focus on football without feeling too bad about being alone. My family will always be there but I had to have the correct mentality. That’s what makes Malmo special and different to other clubs in Sweden. There’s a constant demand for excellence and it’s a club for winners. It was a huge transition where I went from playing in front of 500 people to 20,000 fans every week. If we were winning but not playing well, the fans would still let us know they were not happy – they demanded excellence. There was constant pressure to win the league every single year.
Playing with legends like Jari Litmanen and Daniel Andersson was huge and I learnt a lot being around them. I knew that I needed to succeed here because this was the best opportunity for me to grow as a footballer. I made my debut aged 17 and really established myself regularly in 2010, when we won Allsvenskan. I was young, fresh and playing at the best club in Sweden – I was also in the youth national team for Sweden, who I represented at all youth levels. I decided to stay at Malmo a bit longer as I really loved my football there. It was important that I leave my mark in Swedish football before I left – playing more games and building a name for myself. It wasn’t enough for me if I only had one good season. In 2011, we made it to Europa League and I soon became captain in 2012 as the youngest ever Malmo skipper, aged only 21. We won the league again in 2013, with me as captain this time – I was vote as the best midfielder in the league. It was a fantastic ending to my time there and I felt that this was the right time for me to look for a new challenge.
Signing for 1899 Hoffenheim was huge but the transition was simple because I built myself a good foundation in Sweden where I was experienced enough to cope with the move. My mindset was to play regularly and improve further, rather than just sit and wait on the bench. The tempo and level of quality was significantly higher both tactically and technically. There were generally just better players everywhere – football isn’t a science – if you have a strong team with good players, you will play better football. In Bundesliga, each team has 20 or 25 great players. With the training and quality, you’re forced to step up your game and I started to learn a lot more in training and understanding the tactical side of football such as pressing and different styles of play. Your eyes are open to the different methods of football.
My time in 1899 Hoffenheim wasn’t what I’d hoped, even though I learnt a lot in my three years there. When signing, the manager (Markus Gisdol) made me a lot of promises and I did everything he asked, but he didn’t deliver on what he said. I played only occasionally and he never gave me a real chance to prove myself. He asked me to wait for my time and so I decided to go on loan, as I wanted to play first team football. Standard Liège are a huge club in Belgium but soon after signing, I tore my PCL and couldn’t play for nearly seven months. I’d returned to Germany for rehab and it was tough, but I’d promised myself not to feel bad and to do my best to return to full fitness. This was just part of football. Following my recovery, Huub Stevens has taken over at 1899 Hoffenheim and managed to save the club from relegation. The new manager wanted me to go on loan again to recover my match fitness and I’d found a club to sign with, but we had recently sold Firmino to Liverpool. He called me out of the blue and told me that he wanted to play me as a number 10 and I did a really good job in that position. After five games, the manager trusted me and I’d forced my way into the first team. When Huub walked into the changing room at the end of the season and told us he was retiring due to poor health, I was really sad. The new coach took over and brought with him fresh ideas. I decided that it was a good time to go back to Sweden and get more games. It was a good way to completely recover from my injury as the fans in Sweden knew and trusted me. Signing for Hammarby IF was fantastic as they have a huge following and they’re the most watched team in Scandinavia. They are a sleeping-giant with potential but often struggled in the league. They club were investing into a new challenge and I wanted to be part of this. I was soon captain and we transformed the club into an established top team in Sweden.
It felt like I’d achieved my goal in Harramby IF after two seasons. I’d made 11 goals and 8 assists in my second season and we tied with Malmo in third place. It was the right time to move on with my career and I had offers in Belgium, Holland and Turkey. At the age of 27, I wanted to secure my financial future and Incheon United offered me a lucrative two-year deal to join them in South Korea. I loved living in Incheon and learning about Korean culture, which was similar to our culture. They respect their elders, sit on the floor when they eat, look after each other. We have a lot in common. It didn’t work out there unfortunately once the manager was sacked. He was the one who’d signed me and the foreign players at the club took a lot of blame after some poor results once the new manager arrived. In the end, my contract was cancelled by mutual consent and I returned to Sweden. It’s never the right solution to keep sacking coaches without a proper plan.
Orebro allowed me to train with them and I got to know Yaser Kasim once he arrived. We got on really well and he’s determined more than ever to succeed. I can only speak positively about him. I’m happy for him and he’s a great player. I’d missed playing in a good quality league where I could play competitive games every week. I was happy to join HNK Gorica in Croatia where I can focus on improving and stepping up my game in a competitive league. I want to build myself up before heading back to the top leagues in Europe. This season has been pretty good and we’re challenging for the top positions – it’s competitive. Life is good and I’m enjoying football again.
I was extremely close to being selected in the Swedish squad for the 2018 World Cup and there was pressure on the manager to pick me – he called and apologised for me not being selected in the squad. During my time playing in Korea, I felt that it was time to focus on Iraq. It’s an amazing challenge and Iraq have been following me for a long time. Wolfgang Sidka was the first to contact me and asked if I’d be interested in joining the national team. Even Azerbaijan contacted me to represent them, so there were a few options available. It was now the right time for me to join the national team and represent Iraq with the 2022 World Cup Qualifications and being able to play home games in Iraq. I could have continued to play for Sweden but for me, Iraq was the right decision. It feels more natural for me. I’m looking forward to just playing in front of the Iraqi fans who have shown me so much loved – I can’t answer everyone on social media but I see all the messages and I really appreciate everything that the fans send – I want to win games for them and I don’t care if everything isn’t 100% perfect with the national team in terms of facilities and luxuries – I’m used to the tough life and I’m used to grinding – it’s going to be hard work and I want to make this success happen. I’m only focused on playing for Iraq and winning for the fans and my teammates.
I’ve been talking with many players in the national team and they have welcomed me – it’s all been positive. I did watch the last game against Bahrain where we were the better team but were unlucky with how we conceded – I knew we’d score and I felt we could get a winner. There’s big potential in the squad – many good and young players. We can make it to the 2022 World Cup but we need to find a system that is suitable for the team and identify the right players who can fit into this. We have huge potential in the squad. I really like Meme – he has a ‘lion heart’ – he’s quality and needs more support in midfield, Osama Rashid was excellent and Ali Adnan is one of the experienced players in the squad. Of course, then you have the other players like Yaser, Justin Meram and Ahmed Yasin. Rewan Amin is an amazing player too – he reminds me of Sergio Busquets and will be a big addition to the squad.
I just ask that the fans keep supporting the national team players – it’s hard to tell fans to be patient but these projects take time. They need to trust the process of football and we need to look after each other – there must be mutual respect between fans and players. No player wants to perform badly but we’re human after all. Fans need to understand this and show support rather than turn on the team if things don’t work out. I admire the Iraqi fans because they go all in with their support and always show up for them team. I hope to celebrate in front of them soon, as I’m excited and ready to play Hong Kong in the heat of Basra and I want to show everyone what I can do.