Failed work permits, Dutch bureaucracy and Uday Saddam Hussein – how five Iraqi players missed out on their dream moves to the world’s biggest sides.
Ahmed Radhi was undoubtedly one of Iraq’s greatest ever players. After all, he is the only ever Iraqi to score in a FIFA World Cup. But in the late eighties, he had the chance to become the only Iraqi to play in Latin America. In 1988, Ahmed Radhi was coming off of one of his greatest ever seasons, having won the domestic double for the second season in a row with Al-Rasheed. He also featured in the Seoul Olympics, scoring twice in three games. His summer was capped off with a jaw-dropping 1 million dollar offer from Uruguayan side Nacional. Despite Radhi being heavily keen on the move, Al-Rasheed, which was founded and controlled by Uday Hussein, rejected the offer, and Nacional signed Jose Carreno from French club Lens instead. A few months after the exchange, Ahmed Radhi won the Asian Player of the Year, awarded by IFFHS, while Nacional went on to win the Copa Libertadores. Ahmed Radhi did end up leaving Iraq eventually, joining the less glamorous Al-Wakrah of the Qatari League where he ended up becoming the top goalscorer in his second season there.
Another person who caught the eye of many in Seoul was Radhi’s 19-year-old partner, Laith Hussein. Laith was also playing with Radhi at Al-Rasheed when he was called up to the U-21 World Cup in Saudi Arabia, and a goal against Spain in a 2-0 victory caught the eye of a certain Spanish team. While preparing for their game against Argentina, Hussein received a phone call from Johan Cruyff, who wanted the midfielder to join the team following the tournament and play with the likes of Michael Laudrup and Ernesto Valverde at FC Barcelona. The Iraqi Olympic Committee instructed Laith to go back to Iraq following the tournament as they took care of the paperwork, however, Uday Hussein soon stepped in and declared Laith a “national treasure”, forcing him to stay in Iraq. Laith also ended up leaving Iraq in the 1990s when the government relaxed the rules on travel, joining Radhi in Qatar and playing for Al-Rayyan. He won the domestic league there before retiring in 2003 after a third stint with boyhood club Al-Zawraa.
Following Iraq’s historic Asian Cup victory in 2007, a number of players found themselves playing abroad in Cyprus, Qatar, Iran, and Jordan. One country that could have joined that list was France. Iraq’s captain and talisman Younis Mahmoud received offers from French champions Lyon and their rivals Marseille. However, Younis opted to stay in Qatar, stating that he was afraid of living outside of the Arab world, not knowing whether or not he would be able to assimilate into the European culture, as well as saying that he wanted to live with his family. Younis, a middle school dropout who grew up in an Iraq that was excluded from the rest of the world, later said he regretted that decision in an interview with Michael Church, stating: “But now all the time I think, my God why didn’t I go! When I played with (former Lyon and Brazil midfielder) Juninho Pernambucano he said it was normal that I go. He said I could play in Europe easily, but I was worried about not being able to speak the language and eat the food. This was my problem.” France’s loss was Qatar’s gain, and Younis is widely considered as one of the league’s greatest ever players, having won the competition on three occasions, and being the top goalscorer twice.
Perhaps the closest one of those deals that never materialised was Nashat Akram’s sensational move to the English Premier League. In 2008, Nashat impressed Sven-Göran Eriksson in a trial in Manchester and the Swedish manager requested his club to sign the 23 year-old up. City signed Akram to a two-and-a-half year contract that was going to make him the first Iraqi to play in one of Europe’s top five leagues. However, Nashat couldn’t obtain a work permit and thus his contract with City had to be terminated and he joined Al-Gharafa to partner up with Younis, where they won the Qatari League together. Nashat did end up making the move to Europe eventually, signing for FC Twente in the Netherlands, helping his side win a historic Eredivisie title in 2010. The midfielder also became one of the few Iraqis to play in the Far East, having signed for Chinese team Dalian Aerbin in 2014. Nashat ended his career with Erbil, having won four league titles in four countries.
Finally, we move to the most recent failed transfer. After leaving Feyenoord, Iraqi midfielder Osama Rashid went on a trial with German Bundesliga side Werder Bremen. After impressing with the side, the German club offered the player a three-year deal, which would have made him the first Iraqi to play in any of the top five European leagues. However, his former side Feyenoord claimed that they deserved financial compensation despite the player being a free agent. Following the contractual dispute, the German outfit cancelled the deal and he had to settle for third-division football with Excelsior Maassluis. Osama finally got his chance to play top-flight European football this season, when his side Santa Clara faced Marítimo in the Portuguese League, losing 1-0.