Scarcely milliseconds before the black ink is dry on a preliminary deal between Rizespor and Udinese, Iraqi football fans from the player’s home district of Adhammiya in Baghdad to neighbouring Kadhimiya, to Arbil, Samarra, Najaf and Basra to Edgware Road in London and Dearborn, Michigan are envisaging the Iraqi left back trotting onto the pitch at the Stadio Friuli in the black and white jersey of Udinese.
This is what the Iraqi football community have long been waiting for, an Iraqi international playing in one of the world’s top leagues. Whether he’ll be wearing the black and white jersey of the Bianconeri in Serie A or in La Liga for the Nazaríes of Granada Club de Fútbol next season, this will be a major step up for the boy from Adhammiya and a chance for him to put his troubled 2014-2015 campaign in the Black Sea Region of Turkey behind him and turn a new page in his career.
A season to forget at Rizespor
The 2014-15 season isn’t one Ali Adnan will back with any fondness. He was a shadow of the dominating left footed juggernaut of a footballer the world observed at the 2013 World Youth Cup which persuaded the owners of newly promoted Çaykur Rizespor to tie him down to a five year-contract worth $650,000 US. The player claimed in an Iraqi television interview that he had been recommended to the club by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a semi-professional footballer himself whose family originated from Rize.
The player’s agent Najim Mohammed along with his family decided that the north-east Turkish cirty of Rize was the best place for him, even though there were other more lucrative offers reportedly from Seville, Livorno, Galatasaray, and Nice on the table. But what may have tipped the scale in Rizespor’s favour was its good relationship with the Iraqi FA and more importantly that the club allowed for his close family to reside with him during his stay in Rize.
In his first season in Turkey, Ali was a first team regular at Rizespor making 31 appearances in the Turkish league as the club finished 13th and avoided relegation. The Iraqi was in 32 of the club’s 34 league squads, missing one game through suspension while only once being excluded from the match day squad. Ali managed to score 3 goals and assisted 9 goals, an impressive tally for a left back in his first season.
But while people at the club saw development in the defender in his debut year, that growth spurt seemed to have stunted this season especially after he felt his national duty and allegiance to national coach Hakim Shaker, his former youth coach, was more important than his professional responsibilities with Rizespor. It had all begun so well for him after starting two of the club’s opening league games at home to Genclerbirligi and away to Besiktas, both matches Rizespor drew 1-1.
However his decision to fly to Incheon to play for the Iraqi Under 23s at the Asian Games implied to his club manager that his heart was not fully with the Rize team, but despite missing crucial league games to Mersin Idmanyurdu, Bursapor and Eskisehirspor, two of which the club lost. Ali returned to the starting line-up after leading Iraq’s Under 23s to bronze in South Korea. He started against Balikesirspor, Sivasspor and then came that fateful game at home to Kayseri Erciyesspor, that was ultimately the start of his spiral down the pecking order at the club. In the 27th minute of that match, Ali Adnan was red-carded and missed the next game away to Fenerbahçe allowing him to fly off early for the Gulf Cup in Riyadh.
He returned after his suspension at home to Basaksehir but limped off after only 28 minutes and wasn’t in the match day squad for the following defeat with Kasımpaşa and lasted 82 minutes in the 3-1 defeat to Karabükspor before he was hauled off. That defeat, the club’s fifth successive loss in the league, resulted in the sacking of manager Mehmet Özdilek – the man that had given Ali his debut and that decision all but called time on his career at Rizespor.
The new manager Hikmet Karaman benched the Iraqi in his first game in charge away to Trabzonspor and handed the left back spot to Eren Albayrak and Ali struggled to have a look in from then on, with his excursion at the Asian Cup in Australia, clearly having not helped his situation. In 22 league matches under Karaman, Ali has made a mere three substitute appearances (amounting to just 65 minutes), named on the bench on 8 occasions and hasn’t been named in the last ten match day squads. Compared to last season where he was a first team starter, Ali only played 10 times in the Turkish league.
The Rizespor manager stressed Ali Adnan was “seen as a formidable player on television” but had only seen a few aspects of his game and on the defensive side there was need for what he called “self-development.”
It has been a difficult season for the left back with several articles of his alleged lack of professional attitude in training. A report on March 3 from Turkish website Ajans53.com claimed the Iraqi defender “haunted” by his weight gain, was reluctant to do any vigorous training and his private life was “extremely fast” and noted by his neighbours to be “passionate”.
Ali denied the rumours and claimed that he had attempted to begin libel proceedings against the website but people told him that there was no need to take any legal action because the website was a small one and “wasn’t professional” and that they didn’t know who was writing for them!
This wasn’t the only story in the Turkish press which circulated in March, Karadeniz Gazete claimed through a waiter at a secluded café which the Iraqi defender often frequented as saying that the player, quoting the waiter “ lately often comes with various female friends, leaving a nice tip!”
An olive branch from Udine
Earlier this month, his Turkish club announced that the Iraqi defender wasn’t in the club’s foreseeable plans for next season but it seems that despite a season warming the bench and his weight gain (discussed by the Iraqi coaching staff during their recent two friendly internationals with DR Congo), the talented former graduate from Ammo Baba’s Football School is still in high demand.
Ali has matured in these last two seasons in Rize, he’s no longer the shy and startled looking schoolboy presented to the Turkish media at his unveiling press conference on signing for Rizespor in the summer of 2013, nor is he alien to top flight European football, experiencing the scorching and vibrant welcome of home fans at top clubs in the Turkish league and shouldn’t be overawed to what either La Liga or Serie A has to offer in that regard.
But he has been out of shape for some time and even when he was performing so well for Rizespor, Ali did look around half a stone overweight. This has affected his overall game, looking a tad slower on the ball and while people will be reminded of his heroic, somewhat dogged match winning performance at the 2013 World Youth Cup, Ali hasn’t taken that aspect of his game that inch further.
The Italian club Udinese Calcio of businessman Giampaolo Pozzo, who also owns two other football clubs, Granada CF in Spain and Watford FC in England, have been known for a taking a chance on talented footballers, with the likes of Oliver Bierhoff, Márcio Amoroso, Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari, Samir Handanović and Alexis Sánchez, just a few names who were given first team football and the opportunity to thrill spectators at Udinese’s Stadio Friuli and make their name at the top flight in Serie A since Pozzo took over in 1986, before making multi-billion Lira or million Euro move to bigger clubs.
Ali Adnan must believe in his own abilities if he wants to succeed at either Granada or Udinese and follow in the footsteps of of the likes of Bierhoff, Muntari or Alexis Sánchez. This is a whole different stage for the Iraqi.
The manner in which Ali carries himself and speaking of himself in the third person, some would say with a tinge of arrogance, will hold him in good stead over the next few years because it’s now that he experiences a whole new level of professionalism, and after an unproductive season in the 1st Süper Lig, the left back has to grasp this chance with both hands.
This dream opportunity is one that some of Iraq’s greatest and most talented football players including his uncle Ali Kadhim never had, and Ali Adnan has to get back into shape and work on his game if he wishes to reach another footballing plateau, to match the ‘Iraqi Gareth Bale’ tag branded about, this move should be considered a stepping stone for him and not his retirement home or pension. The player may feel that he has arrived at the top but this is only the start of a long road, Ali Adnan is no where near to what an all-round professional footballer should be, but he has all the physical attributes to succeed in Europe. But he has to keep his mind focused mentally, on training, on developing his game and the rest will come.