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Ayman Hussein: Iraq’s Olympic Superhero

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It’s a scene that has been replayed over and over again on Iraqi TV screens since it happened in real time, the 109th minute header from match winner Ayman Hussein – which saw Iraq qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro for the fifth time in their history.

The striker from Hawija in Kirkuk province had started the AFC U-23 tournament in Qatar as the main centre forward in Abdul-Ghani Shahad’s team, however after a timid performance in the opening game against Yemen, Al-Zawraa’s vastly more experienced Mohanad Abdul-Rahim was picked ahead of him. Ayman waited patiently on the bench for the coach’s call to make his mark and that duly came in the 3rd/4th place play-off match, with the winning nation clinching the final ticket to qualify for the Olympics in Rio this summer, an opportunity Ayman had previously described as “a dream” for him and his team-mates before the squad had jetted off to Doha.

With the home side Qatar leading 1-0, and with nothing to lose, his coach brought on Ayman as the last throw of the dice. Then the moment came, four minutes in the second half of extra-time. The Qatari defence attempted to clear an Iraqi corner, but the weak clearance from Assim Madibo only found Amjad Atwan on the edge of the box and his deftly lofted ball into the penalty area was guided into the bottom left hand corner of net with a perfectly finished cushioned header from Ayman beating the diving keeper with the ball bouncing in front of him and into the net. Some Iraqi supporters have even compared the winning goal against Qatar, which saw Iraq reach the Olympics to another historic header scored by Younis Mahmoud which won Iraq the 2007 Asian Cup in Jakarta.

The 6 foot 3 inch striker along with his 21 team-mates and the rest of the Olympic staff were rewarded for their heroics by the Council of Ministers with a plot of land while the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abbadi handed them each a Swiss-made Hanowa Arrow Chronograph watch at a ceremony this week in Baghdad, later alleged to have been cheap watches made in China and costing no more than $50 US dollars!

Touching down at Baghdad International Airport, the player dedicated the victory and Olympic qualification to the Iraqi people, the martyrs and the internal displaced persons in Iraq, Ayman like no other Iraqi understands and lives the daily suffering of his people. Iraqi sports presenter Taha Abu-Raghef stated that he was shocked to learn that the goalscorer’s father, an Iraqi Army officer was one of the martyrs killed by Al-Qaeda and that his elder brother Atheer had been abducted by Daesh (ISIS) and is still unaccounted for and presumed dead. Ayman’s family were displaced from their home in Hawija with his own mother in poor health and living in a rented accommodation in Kirkuk. It is staggering that despite all of these heartbreaking events and the pain borne out of the personal tragedies of this young man, how he was able to bear the scars and play on without any sign of grief etched on his face to help score Iraq’s historic goal and qualify for the Olympics.

ayman2Internally displaced

Ayman is a remarkable footballer, a young man who at 19 years has lost a number of close relatives and friends to the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence and terrorism which had ravaged post-war Iraq. Today Ayman, the main breadwinner for the what is left of the family, lives alone in Baghdad while the remainder of his family, his mother and brothers Asser and Laith are internally displaced in Kirkuk. Earning a living by playing for Al-Naft in the Iraqi capital, Ayman has not seen his family for three months, as his mother and two younger brothers live in a rented house in Kirkuk. The player had hoped to buy a house for them however he was unable to transfer the ownership of the place he wanted to buy in his name as he did not possess a residency card. He says that his only concern is to do everything in his power in order to see his family live comfortably.

The backdrop of the serene surroundings of the air-conditioned Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium is a far cry from where this match winner grew up. Iraq’s lanky forward Ayman Hussein comes from the town of Hawaija, one of the most volatile regions in the world, which even for Iraq, is considered a dangerous place to live. His family is one of four million internally displaced people within the borders of Iraq, their sole mean of survival now is the up and coming young striker’s substantial wage of 125m Iraqi dinars (approx. $113,000 US Dollars) – equivalent to $1,065 US dollars a week. The two-year contract with Baghdad’s Al-Naft (Oil) Sports Club signed last summer is paid to the player in instalments, a similar arrangement to other footballers in the Fuchs Iraqi league.

Ayman Hussein Ghadban Al-Mafraji was born on March 22, 1996 in the rural village of Al-Safra in the Al-Riyadh sub-district in south-western part of Kirkuk. The village is situated in the turbulent district of Hawija, now controlled by ISIS and has been the scene of coalition airstrikes since last summer. Insurgents have frequently targeted oil pipelines in the village since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, with daily car bombs and improvised explosive device (IED) blasts a normal part of life for the young Ayman growing up in Al-Safra. The violence took the life of Ayman’s father Iraqi Army Officer Hussein Ghadban after the fall of the Baathist regime and with large parts of the region overrun by ISIS forces, including Al-Safra – the footballer’s family fled their home and became one of the four million internally displaced Iraqis.

First Club

Ayman was spotted as a gifted teenager with his local shaabiya team and it was because of a local resident who was also a board member at the Al-Alim (Knowledge) Sports Club who recommended the player to his club. Ayman was able to carve out a career in the game which led him on a journey that has seen him travel the world with the Iraqi U-19, Olympic and senior national teams.

“It’s the right of any human to be proud of something that they had a share in its emergence,” Amer Al-Majhoul, the player’s first coach from the province of Kirkuk states proudly, as he fondly remembers the tall striker he nicknamed “Aymouni”.

“Ayman Hussein is hard-working and determinedly brave,” he says of his former protégé. He recalls how Ayman joined the youth team at Al-Alim, where he was coaching. “His first steps were in the youth team at Al-Alim Club, which I supervised. Ayman’s father was martyred at the hands of Al-Qaeda and Mohammed Chaka, a board member at the club and the person who presented him to the Al-Alim Club, was killed by Daesh,” using the Arab acronym for the terrorist group ISIS.

Al-Majhoul described how the player came to his attention after the club was alerted to his talents by club board member Mohammed Chaka, who was later tragically executed by ISIS. The late Mr.Chaka had informed the club that there was a talented shaabiya footballer in the same area he was living in, in the village of Al-Safra, located in the area of Riyadh and asked if it was possible for the head coach to give him a try and see if he was good enough to sign for the club. The striker arrived for a trial however the coach apologized to him, seeing that he wasn’t at the same level of fitness as the rest of the team to take part in the game, and told the young striker he wouldn’t play him.

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The youth coach at the club was Amer Al-Majhoul and he had noticed Ayman at the trial and with his age and “good height,” he thought Ayman could be a useful addition to his youth team in their local championship. He immediately phoned the late Mohammed Chaka and expressed to him “Do not let Ayman go, I want him with the youth team.” The three later sat and had dinner at the late board member’s home and the coach persuaded Ayman to remain at the club, with Chaka telling the player that all the young man’s expenses were on him and prophetically remarked, “Amer will benefit you,” and with that, he signed for Al-Alim.

He joined the team as a midfielder. However, Amer transformed him into a centre forward with his height being a driving factor behind his decision. Ayman trained with his new team-mates and not long after, the local championship started. The striker produced some outstanding performances but after each victory for his team, the opposition would object to the lofty striker’s inclusion with opposing coaches berating Ayman’s coach “Where in the world is there such a tall player at this age group,” they shouted. To offset the barrage of protests the coach even asked the player to go to the Al-Riyadh sub-district and his school to verify his national identification card and his age. However despite this, they continued to win and the protests never stopped. “Not to prolong it for you,” the coach notes, “By the time we reached the final, they had taken out our spirits from the volume of protests from rival coaches over his height.”

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The final was against Samarra played in Salah-Al-Deen province, an hour away from Al Alam, however Ayman arrived late, only later did his coach find out the reason for his lateness, as he was apparently at a celebration at the University of Tikrit and according to the coach was dancing with half the female students there! Initially the coach had second thoughts over starting him however knowing he could make a difference, he played him and a golden goal-scoring opportunity did come to Ayman in the game but he unfortunately missed it, subsequently his team failed to score and they lost the final. He was chosen as the best player at the tournament and became the focus of attention of other clubs in the province, and eventually signed for Al-Douz. But it was at the modest Al-Alim Club that his football career initially began.

Top Flight

After stints in the youth teams of Al-Alim and Al-Douz, and with no club from Kirkuk in the top divisions in the Iraqi league, Ayman took the unorthodox route in his attempts into getting into a top flight of the Iraqi league by signing for Gas Al-Shamal (North Gas) a club which was then in the second tier of the Kurdistan League, a division formed of primarily reserve players from the top Kurdish clubs.

He joined Gas Al-Shamal after a successful trial under the observant eyes of ex-Iraqi international Osama Nouri who encouraged him early on in his path in the game. Ayman played a key role in guiding them into the top division under coaches Abdullah Mahmoud and Walid Ahmed, scoring the decisive winning goal in the league decider against Al-Shorja which helped the team clinch promotion.

At the end of the season 2012-13, Ayman was offered the opportunity to play in the Iraqi Premier League for the first time when he was contacted by the assistant coach of Duhok, Khalid Mohammed Sabbar and was offered a lucrative contract to play for the club which Ayman said he agreed to immediately amid “great joy” working under the former Iraq captain and the two renowned coaches Syrian Fajr Ibrahim and Thair Ahmed during his spell with Duhok.

He appeared only a few times for the Mountain Hawks scoring two goals in the first stage of the season, however with salaries going unpaid for months at the cash-strapped club feeling the full ramifications of the financial crisis which had hit the Kurdistan region hard, Ayman made the decision to try his luck in Baghdad. He had been one of six players at Duhok including defender Ali Latif who were released due to their financial troubles during the latter part of the year.

AHSigning for Al-Naft

In late 2014, the then Al-Zawraa coach Emad Mohammed expressed interest in signing Ayman, with Baghdad rivals Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya also making a contract offer however after negotiations with Al-Naft and a reassuring talk with their club president Kadhim Mohammed Sultan, the striker decided on a move to Al-Naft, donning the No.8 jersey. With a new contract and the opportunity to appear regularly for an Iraqi Premier League side, he signed on the dotted line, turning down top clubs Al-Zawraa and Al-Jawiya to join the unfashionable Al-Naft.

He moved during the 2014 winter transfer window and impressed in the remaining matches of the season, getting on the score-sheet five times to help the Oil Club avoid relegation.

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Last summer, Ayman was a player in high demand and received several attractive contract offers to try and tempt him to leave Al-Naft, particularly from Al-Minaa and Al-Shurta however the club president Kadhim Mohammed Sultan refused to release him. The player noted he was pleased that the club wanted to retain his services and felt lucky to stay on because the club had given him the opportunity to play for the national teams, both the Olympic side and the senior team.

This season he has showed himself to be one of the top forwards in the Premier League continuing on from where he left off last season and has succeeded in proving his presence as one of Iraq’s best young potentials in the local league.

Two months before his big move to the Iraqi capital, Ayman had been selected for the Under 19s at the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship in Myanmar where he was used by the Under 19s coach Rahim Hamed as a substitute in each of the three group matches, scoring one goal in the team’s only only victory at the tournament, a 6-0 win over Oman. However Iraq failed to get into the knock-out stages.

Younis Mahmoud’s Successor

A week after Yahya Alwan was named head coach of Iraq in early August 2015, he called up Ayman for a training session with the seniors for the first time at the Al-Shaab stadium. The striker had played under the ex-Olympic coach during the AFC U-23 Olympic qualifying stages in Muscat five months earlier, where he scored two goals in four games which saw Iraq reach the finals in Doha – evidently ending in Ayman scoring the crucial goal which qualified Iraq for the Olympics in Rio.

On the eve of a friendly game in Saida against Lebanon, 2007 Asian Cup winner and team captain Younis Mahmoud, a player who dozens of Iraqi forwards have tried in vain in the past ten years to displace in the Lions’ starting line-up, waxed lyrical about his fellow Kirkuki stating resolutely to the Iraqi Football Picture Gallery (Iraqfpg) website “This player will take my place in the national team”.

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Speaking on the vacuum the Iraqi No.10 would leave in the team after his retirement, he replied “There’s a player that I feel will be my successor on the pitch, where I find myself in this player in terms of specifications, in movement and shooting at goal, it’s the player Ayman Hussein. I talked with the training staff and expressed my opinion on this player, where he only needs to play some official matches and avoid excessive nervousness, where I observe that he’s not nervous when he collects the ball.”

The player seemed happy with his first call-up for Iraq and posted a photo of himself on his own instagram account aymanhussen9  standing alongside Younis Mahmoud during a training session with the comment that it had been his dream to get his chance to play for Iraq and to train with Younis Mahmoud, in a message to over 4,000 of his followers he wrote, “With Al-Safah Younis Mahmoud, finally seen him and trained with him, and this is the first dream of reaching the national team and the beginning of the road, inshallah.”

Yahya Alwan sent the striker on in stoppage time to make his full international debut in the 3-2 win over Lebanon at the Saida International Stadium replacing his idol Younis Mahmoud for the final three minutes . While he’s made his name with the Olympic team, the next step is challenging Al-Safah for the main striker’s position in the national team, and out of every other striker who has battled Younis Mahmoud for that role, no one will bet against the young Ayman, who has already defied the odds, from displacing the legendary Iraqi captain in the future.

I leave the final word to his former coach Amer Al-Majhoul, who said of the striker after his winner in Doha last month, “My joy was mixed because there is suffering in the painful life of Ayman but he was able to resist it and delight us and that proves that he is a player who wants to have a big impact since he first started playing football… Ayman responds to murderers by scoring goals for our Olympic team.”

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