Nine games and two goals into the season and Osama Rashid, 23, is already making waves across the Portuguese Segunda Liga. The midfielder has settled in well at Sporting Clube Farense following his departure from Dutch side Alphense Boys last summer. As is the case with many Iraqi expat players, his story is a long and arduous one. Born in Kirkuk and raised in Holland before his move to Portugal, Osama offered a rare insight into his journey as we spoke. His humility and laidback demeanour were noticeably contrasting with his explosiveness on the pitch. Although shy and polite, the Iraqi international held nothing back in this exclusive interview.
You’ve made a very promising start to your SC Farense career. How happy have you been with your form?
“My form is getting better. At the start, it was obviously difficult due to the intensity of the league being a lot higher than Holland. It’s very physical here but I feel better now and I’m learning to adapt my game. I’ve been working hard at the gym too. More importantly, I’m actually playing matches. The more you play, the fitter and sharper you become, which is helping me get used to the standard of football here. The first four matches were a little bit difficult but it’s getting better. I have a good feeling about the way things are going so far.
We have a good team and are targeting a top five finish in the league – we want to push for promotion. We’ve signed a quality striker and this will be important for us, as the teams in the league are fairly similar in quality. The teams who score the most will be the ones who secure promotion”
How are you finding life in Portugal?
“I’m currently living with my Saudi teammate (Saeed Al Muwallad). The club have provided us with a really good apartment here in Faro. It’s going pretty well. I’m learning to cook for myself. Recently it was international break and we never had a club match, so I was able to go back to Holland and visit my family. I was so happy to eat Iraqi food again. I miss everything – all the foods! Fassoolia, bamya and dolma especially.
Life here is very good – the weather is good. It’s going well. Most of the players here speak English so that’s helped me settle in a lot. Luckily, I speak a little bit of Spanish too, which is not too dissimilar to Portuguese.
I play on my PlayStation 4. I’m a big FIFA fan. FIFA over PES, for sure.”
Did you receive any other offers in the summer, and what attracted you to SC Farense?
“I received some offers but I chose SC Farence because the opportunities here are great. It’s important that I get to play a lot of matches and we have 46 league games this season. By playing these matches, I’ll grow as a player and improve myself. There were other offers from elsewhere but I wanted to base my decision on development rather than money. I also preferred staying in Europe instead of moving to the Gulf.”
What did you make of Iraq’s chances for World Cup qualification after their performances against Chinese Taipei and Thailand?
“I think we can make it. The performance against Chinese Taipei was good but the game against Thailand was less so. We threw it away in the last ten minutes. When I turned up to training, everyone was asking me how we managed to throw away the game after leading 2-0. I only managed to see the goals and not the full match because I had training.
We have a young talented group though. Ali Adnan has gone to Udinese, Dhurgham moved to Rizespor and Ahmed Yasin has moved too. Yaser Kasim and Justin Meram are doing well for their clubs. We have a good bunch of players. It’s important that we keep this group together.”
There were some complications in your recent call up to the Iraq squad. What happened?
“There was a slight muddle up unfortunately. Basil Gorgis called me explaining that Yahya Alwan wanted to take me as part of his squad. An invitation was sent to my club asking for my official release. I sent my passport to London to arrange a visa but was later told to withdraw my passport as the papers will be arranged via the Iranian Federation. I went to Lisbon by train to sort it out. On my way there I received a message asking me to book a flight to join the national team once the visa was sorted. It was a long three-hour journey to Lisbon but I sorted all out and contacted the FA asking them to book my ticket for the 31st of August as I had a match on the 30th. Everything seemed to be okay until a few days before I was supposed to leave, where I received my ticket and it was booked for the 30th August. I called the FA to book it on a more convenient time but was told I could only do this once the manager confirms he wants me in the squad. This was odd as all the paperwork had been sorted and SC Farense already received papers asking for my official release.”
The national team did exceptionally well under Radhi Shenaishil at the last Asian Cup. What did he excel at?
“Honestly, previously I always felt some tension between expats and the local players but when Radhi came in, it was different. From the first day, he sat us down and explained to everybody that there was no differences between us and that we were one. He made it clear that nobody was allowed to use the words ‘mughtarifeen’ anymore either – we were all the same.
He was very respectful to everybody there and everyone respected him too. The way he worked, but also as a person. For example, in the Asian Cup, the players had received bonuses after reaching the semis. He made sure all the other staff received their fair share too, such as those in charge of equipment, etc.
He was the main reason why we had so much success in the Asian Cup. Zico and him were the best coaches I played under for the national team.”
Gonzalo Rodriguez seems to have a very positive relationship with a lot of the players. How did you find working with him?
“He’s brilliant at what he does. He knows his stuff and has worked for enormous clubs like Liverpool and Valladolid. Fitness coaches … Very few footballers like them! But with him, it was really good. He makes it fun. He always tries being creative with his exercises so you’re never thinking: “I don’t want to do this again”. He’s very experienced, and polite.
His best quality was that he knew exactly what to do differently for each player. Before the semis in the Asian Cup, he gave me a special nutritional regime to follow and explained to me how it’ll help due to my lack of match fitness. He knew what was needed to get the best out of all the players.”
How important are expat players to the future of Iraqi football?
“They’re the future of Iraq. I say this with respect to all the local players, who are of course fantastic too. It’s a sensitive topic to discuss sadly, as I don’t want this to come across as an attack on local players. Regardless, the expat players hold an important position in the future of Iraqi football. I hope the local players also make moves towards Europe and follow in the footsteps of Ali Adnan and Dhurgham Ismail.
It’s a tough challenge for local players to move to Europe for various reasons. The difference in cultures and lifestyle make it difficult. Aspects like dietary changes and discipline, intensity of training and leaving families behind all have a massive impact. The Iraqi league finishing so late into the European transfer window causes problems too as players are expected to jump straight into their new sides without resting. I can see more players moving to Turkey before taking a step elsewhere.
My advice to young expat footballers would be to stay in Europe and find a team where they will play matches. You need to be playing on a weekly basis to grab the attention of the national team. If you receive an opportunity to go on loan to a team that can guarantee you minutes on the pitch, then you should go ahead with it. You need the game time to progress and develop as a young footballer. “
Before you became a familiar face in Iraqi football, did it come as a shock to you just how big football is to Iraqis?
“The first time it really hit me was when we arrived in Sweden for our friendly match against Brazil. I must’ve been 19 or something. We arrived in the airport and it was completely full. The police were trying to control the fans but there were just too many Iraqis who had turned up to greet the players. The fans eventually forced their way into the baggage handling area. This one man, he must’ve been around fifty, he started hugging and kissing me. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do, or what was happening. I had goosebumps. It was the first time where I really appreciated just how big football was to Iraqi fans.
Iraqi fans are always messaging me on social media too. They’re very nice – at least I think they are. They always write to me in Arabic and I don’t read Arabic that well. Sometimes its better to just pretend they’re all saying nice stuff!
The pressure on you to win when playing for Iraq is immense. 35 million people who all expect you to win and perform well. For me though, playing for your country is the best feeling. It’s completely different to club football. International football is far more tactical too.”
Away from the football pitch, what’s been your best experience so far with the Iraqi national team?
“That match against Brazil was an amazing experience and is up there with some of my best footballing memories. My number one memory however is training with Zico. This one time, he joined in with us in the training session and made around one hundred crosses. Every single cross landed perfectly on my chest. I’ve never seen someone do anything like this before. It was amazing.”
Do you have any memories of Iraq’s Asian Cup win in 2007?
“Yeah, of course. I remember the final – the goal – Younis Mahmoud. I went with my brother to celebrate with the other Iraqis in Holland. I remember it well. It was amazing seeing them win, and then a few years later I was playing with the same players. It was an honour playing alongside the likes of Basim Abbas, Nashat Akram and Younis. Just training with them everyday – I was very proud. Nashat is the best player I’ve played with. He was a great personality but the level of control he had on the pitch was amazing. Everything about him.”
What was it like featuring in arguably the greatest Asian Cup match ever against Iran in 2015?
“I think I almost had a heart attack! It was unbelievable. I didn’t play in that match so I was watching from the bench. It was very hard to watch – we were losing initially 1-0, then 1-1, then 2-1 for us, and it was in the last second they equalised for 3-3. After they scored, I couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking “this can’t be happening”.
Afterwards, it went to penalties, which is different. Our player advantage didn’t matter and it was 50:50 again. After we won it on penalties, I remember the entire stadium exploding – loads of fans bursting into tears. It was amazing. We had a small party with the fans afterwards too. It’s the craziest match I’ve ever been part of.
The Asian Cup in Australia was a great experience. I couldn’t believe how many Iraqis were living there and how far people had travelled to see us. The fans were great and followed us everywhere, even outside the stadium. The atmosphere was good. It was my first big tournament too. This was different to anything I’ve done.”
On the pitch, where does the Iraq team need to improve?
“We need to hold onto the ball better and shift away from launching the ball from defence when under pressure. Instead, we have to have more control on the ball and transition the ball better from defence to midfield. Play through the middle more.
Do you have any childhood memories of living in Iraq?
“When I was three years old, there was an ice-cream truck driving around our area. I wanted to buy some and I asked my dad for money. I started running after the truck but I ran out barefoot, without my ni3al (sandles). There was some glass all over the floor, which I didn’t see. I ran over it and my feet were bleeding badly. I’m okay now though!
More recently, I remember going back three years after the war to visit my family and cousins. It was nice to see that they were happy. Looking back, I have only good memories.”
Growing up, did you have any footballing role models, or players that you tried to base your game on?
“When I was younger, from about seven years old, it was Juninho Pernambucano. I didn’t try basing my game on him but I loved watching him play. His position on the pitch, the way he played the game without any worries, obviously his freekicks and just how calm he was. You never see him fighting or panicking on the ball.”
Who is the best player you’ve played against and which famous players have you swapped shirts with?
“The Ramires shirt is my favourite, maybe. No! It’s my Mario Götze shirt from the European Champion U17 (representing Holland as a youth player). I also have a Jack Wilshire shirt. The Götze shirt is my favourite though.
The best player I’ve played against is Neymar.”
If you can change anything in your career, what would it be?
“After my contract ended with Feyenoord, I moved to Den Bosch. I panicked with my decision and decided too quickly. I probably should have gone to another club instead. It was a tough period for me psychologically and I’d pretty much lost all my passion for football.”
Real Madrid or Barcelona?
“I like Real Madrid more than Barcelona. My dream move would be to Real Madrid.”
Do you have any pre-game rituals or superstitions?
“When I walk onto the pitch, I have to walk on with my right foot first. Of course, before the game I pray too.”
On the pitch, how are your skills best utilised?
“Quick, offensive football in a 4-3-3 formation.”
What do you think the next step in your career will be?
“I don’t know right now. My ambition is to do well in Portugal first and foremost. I’d love to eventually move to England. I’d love to play for Manchester United.”
If you weren’t a footballer, what would you be doing for a living now?
“I’ve finished my bachelor degree in Sports Marketing last year. I’d imagine it would be something related to this”
I love football because…
“I love football because it’s the greatest thing ever. Football brings peace – as Iraqis, we know that better than anybody. We saw it when we won the Asian Cup in 2007.”
Finally, is there anything you’d like to tell the Iraqi jumhoor?
“I’d just like to thank all the fans for the support they always show me. They’re always messaging me on social media. I also hope that the Iraqi fans help Yaser Kasim after the recent events and not blame him. I think he’ll come back to the national team, so we should be patient. For sure, he’ll be back. I’m a good friend with Yaser (Kasim) but I only see him at games with the national team. Hopefully I’ll come to London soon and pay him a visit.”
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Osama Rashid for taking time out to discuss all these topics so thoroughly and honestly with me. You can find him on Twitter @OsamaRashid92 and on Instagram @OsamaRashid8. Find me on Twitter too @Nashat_Hassan. Thanks for reading.