A story filled with trophies, professionalism and achievement, Rafat Mohammed now leads Al-Wahda Damascus as manager for the first time. Still only 38 years old, the bright tactician is revered across Syria as the catalyst to their footballing development in the future. Let’s go back to the start, where Mohammed started. Was he a ‘Wahdawi’ through and through? Well, “as a player, it all started off at Al-Jaish in the youth or age groups as we call them in Arabic.”
The most successful team in Syria, “The Army” in English, was the birthplace of Rafat Mohammed’s footballing career, as a right back. A right back known for his excellent fitness levels and blistering speed. “Moving onwards, I was on the end of a transfer to Al-Wahda, of course where I am at now.” The club where he spent most of his career at, the club where he manages now and clearly – the club he loves. Mohammed, though, had a different pathway to success. Just after his move to Al-Wahda he had his first professional adventure. Was it in neighbouring countries like Jordan and Lebanon? Not yet, though bizarrely, Mohammed ended up in Chernomorets Odessa of Ukraine! “The first of my two professional experiences was in Ukraine with Chernomorets” a deal worth reportedly $20,000 at the time (according to inflation calculators, at around $27,500 in today’s world of football). “Ukraine made me grow as a player, and I am indebted to the club for the experience and welcome they gave me”.
Little is known in the Arabic media of his experience during that time besides the financial details, but he explains his feelings and the benefits of that move to us. “Realistically, with the tight financial situation, the dream is to become a professional. The benefits were extremely clear, first of all on a financial level. The earnings in Syria were no where near the reality in Ukraine. Next is the technical level, we played with better footballers there and the experience that comes with it is invaluable.” That was not his only stop, though.
Rafat Mohammed was part of a successful time in Syria no doubt, as he won the Cup in 2002-03 and the league title in the season that followed. (Cup title win shown in the video below, Al-Wahda were in orange with Rafat at right back).
To score a goal in one of the most entertaining finals in history, was definitely an honour for Rafat Mohammed. Subsequently involved in a brilliant moment in the league win where thousands of Al-Wahda fans gathered in basketball stadiums, cafes and streets watching the game on the big screens in as early as 2004. Yet arguably the worst moment of his career came in that season too, as Al-Wahda lost on away goals to Rafat’s former club Al-Jaish in the AFC Cup Final (2004) on a rainy night in Damascus. “It was the best match in my footballing career, without a shadow of a doubt. My header topped it off.”
That still wasn’t Rafat’s biggest moment. “I received an offer from a club called Tchilden, and another from the now wealthy Manchester City back in around 2004. I ended buying tickets and getting prepared for what was going to be a big move – all Syrian and Arabic media had reported the news as a confirmed deal, done and dusted, however – I ended up failing to travel to Manchester for reasons that I’d like to keep private. The chance to go in trial in England didn’t work out.” A probable move of dreams and to be written in the history books for Syria, it wasn’t meant to be, and Rafat stayed at Al-Wahda until 2006 where he became a professional at Shabab Al-Ordon in Jordan.
“It was an amazing journey, a journey filled with success and trophies which is an absolute dream for any football player. The AFC Cup that I failed to win with Al-Wahda, I won with Shabab Al-Ordon against Jordanian giants Al-Faisaly. We even won more trophies in the Jordanian league – where I was also part of a team that won their respective league for the first time ever – the Jordanian Cup and the Jordanian Super Cup. It was definitely an eventful few years. The technical level was also better than Syria too. It was such a vital moment under my career due to being coached by captain Nizar Mahrous, a fellow Syrian footballer and then our manager. He also trained me during my early years in football with Al-Wahda.”
He retired in 2013, stating that “coaching has always been my dream. It’s just like that for footballers. If he wants to continue in the footballing scene, then coaching is the perfect job for the footballer. Asked about his future goals, “to win that AFC Cup that I never won at Al-Wahda. A continental achievement.” And despite a poor return in the 2014 edition, the 2015 edition saw Al-Wahda reach the last 16 only to heartbreakingly lose out on penalties in Tajikistan to Istiklol.
Finally, I asked arguably the most important question. Where is the level of the Syrian league right now under the crisis? “Definitely, the level has lowered due to refugees who left the country and the new rule that doesn’t allow any team to buy or contract with any foreign player. Add that to the poor league schedule that sometimes sees us play under lots of pressure with game after game, that affects the technical level of the play extensively. Fans have stopped coming to games too, except for Al-Wahda. 10,000 fans came to our semi-final match as a huge example. This is the only good thing left of the league.”
Al-Wahda also won the league in 2014 to a huge attendance:
A revered player and now coach, arguably the best right back in Al-Wahda history – Rafat Mohammad’s story has been a wonderful ride.