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Hussein Ali: The Iraqi starlet winning praise at the Gulf Cup

When the slight figure of Hussein Ali stepped off the team bus on his arrival at the 23rd Gulf Cup in Kuwait, journalists were told by people close to the Iraqi delegation that the Iraqi No.16 was the next big thing to come out of the Iraqi game and would be the best player at the tournament. Some looked with bewilderment while others could not believe that the shortest player in the whole competition could put a stamp on any game let alone the Gulf Cup. In just three games, he walked away with the man of the match award in every one of Iraq’s group matches and the sports media in the region are now calling him the ‘Iraqi Maradona’ and ‘the Messi of the Gulf’.

Wonder kid

And that has been the story of Hussein Ali’s life and burgeoning football career, there have always been the doubters, but nothing in the world can keep this gifted player from reaching the top of the game, not the countless youth coaches who held him back from the Iraqi teams at U-17 and U19 level preferring to field more physically developed players, nor even a stray bullet could stop him! At 21, Hussein is considered to be one of the most gifted footballers in the Iraqi league and is idolised by the Al-Nawaras supporters at Al-Zawraa, the biggest supported club in Iraq.

The Emirati Al-Bayan newspaper wrote this about him “Many critics and analysts see Hussein Ali as a rare footballing talent that will bring Iraqi minds back to the rounds of senior stars who have passed through the Iraqi national team like the likes of Ahmed Radhi, Laith Hussein, Nashat Akram, Younis Mahmoud and others.”

Two of Iraq’s great footballers, 1986 World Cup striker Ahmed Radhi and 2007 Asian Cup winning captain Younis Mahmoud have stated that their fellow compatriot has been the Gulf Cup’s player of the tournament. “He creates, he defends, he can do everything” the ex-Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud praised the 21 year-old on the often opinionated panellist show on Al-Dawri wa Al-Kass TV’s Al-Majlis program after one critic failed to name the young Iraqi player as the 23rd Gulf Cup’s best player. Iraq and Al-Zawraa legend Ahmed Radhi remarked on the Kuwait’s atv sports show Lobby Khaleeji (Gulf Lobby) that the player had been the major difference in the matches Iraq had played at the Gulf Cup tournament and likened him to world star Lionel Messi.

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Next Move

The player’s own ambitions have no perimeters and he dreams of turning professional and to one day play in a top league on the European continent. Since the start of the Gulf Cup, his Iraqi football agent Najim Abdullah based in Dubai, has been inundated with calls from Gulf clubs wanting to sign the player but he has postponed any negotiations until the end of the tournament as not to affect the performances of the player “All I ask of the player is to focus on the Gulf Cup and to think about how to play better that would help the player get a move to a top team,” the agent told Iraq’s Alsumaria News.

He explained Libyan club Al-Ahly Tripoli would be the last port of call for the player, for several reasons, as they had not followed the right guidelines to negotiate with him. They had tried to influence the player by speaking to him directly, without negotiating with his club beforehand “and this is not the correct way because the player has a contract with his club and we respect it and we are trying to move it in an official way,” said his agent.

Last September Hussein signed a new contract at Al-Zawraa to remain for another two seasons after offers from Libyan club Al-Ahly Tripoli and Kuwait’s Al-Arabi in deals worth $200,000 USD a season. However his club stated that after a remarkable level the player had shown in the previous season, it had led the club’s administration to hold onto the services of the player and reach an agreement that satisfied both parties in order to strengthen Al-Zawraa’s squad for the new season under new coach Ayoub Odisho.

Sources close to the club had reportedly set a release clause of one billion Iraqi dinars (approx. $840,000 USD) in the player’s contract if any perspective suitors wanted to sign him, a substantial amount in Iraqi football. Baghdad rivals Al-Shurta had agreed a move for the player to represent them after his contract ran out in 2018 but Al-Zawraa rejected the offer and did not give the player his dispensation to leave.

Hussein has played for the White Seagulls since 2015 and has made 84 appearances and scored ten goals for the club and with the maestro having become both a league and cup winner with Al-Zawraa by the time he had turned 20, it may be the right time for Al-Zawraa’s No.9 to leave the club where he made his name and look for a new challenge in a more demanding league in the Gulf, North Africa or even Europe.

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His Debut

Today, Hussein Ali is the star of the Iraqi League and the first player on the Al-Zawraa team sheet and is adored by the club’s fans but only three years ago, no one had ever heard of him and only got his chance to play in the first team due to the misfortune of a fellow team-mate. The man who gave Hussein Ali his big break to play for his beloved Al-Zawraa, was not a coach but a Brazilian professional footballer named Jô Baiano known in Iraq as Jô Santos.

Born Hussein Ali Jassim Al-Saadi on November 29, 1996 in the Iraqi capital and growing up in the passionate footballing environment within the densely populated Al-Sadr City, in the east of Baghdad meant he was always destined to follow others from the old City of Revolution such as the great Falah Hassan, the late Natiq Hashim and Shaker Mahmoud and carve out a life for himself in the game. Al-Medina (“The City) as people from there call it, has long been a conveyer belt of football talent for the Lions of Mesopotamia from the day the plot of land the government of Iraqi leader Abdul-Karim Qasim named Madinat Al-Thawra (“Revolution City”) was first built on after the country’s 1958 Revolution.

His start in football came in the junior teams at Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya before he moved to the Ammo Baba Football School where he was trained by former Iraqi captain Habib Jafar and he went onto play for the Iraqi U-14s and for the Iraqi Schoolboys’ team at the 2013 Arab School Championship in Tunisia where he played three matches in the city of Grombalia and scoring one goal in a 3-0 win over Kuwait.

After a spell with Nadi Amana Baghdad’s U-17 side, Hussein moved to Al-Zawraa which was where he found his spiritual home. He was a student in the fourth grade of middle school when he joined the club’s youth side and the coaches at the club knew they had a real talent on their hands. Hussein came under the supervision of Basim Liabi and played in a youth championship winning team which included defender Najim Shwan and by the time he had turned seventeen, the club’s training staff believed it was the right time for him to move up to the first team.

At the start of the season, Hussein or Abu Ali as he is known to his team-mates, had been one of the players promoted by the club’s new coach Jamal Ali from Al-Zawraa’s youth team and had been designated the No.34 as his squad number. However just two matches into the season, the coach, who had brought him into the first team, was sacked after a humiliating 4-2 defeat to lowly Al-Masafi Al-Wasat. His replacement was a former club favourite and player Emad Mohammed.

Whilst there was talk of financial worries behind the scenes in the club boardroom, further exasperation by the team’s stuttering league form, Hussein’s path to first team football was blocked by players such as Egyptian professional Mostafa Jalal, Mohammed Saad, Haidar Sabah and Amjad Walid and he slid further down the pecking order when Al-Zawraa signed a Brazilian and a Syrian as they looked to challenge for the league title.

In early 2015 and three months after he had turned eighteen, Hussein Ali was on the fringes of making his first team debut for the White Seagulls and on March 6, 2015 he was finally handed his league debut against Naft Al-Wasat at just 18 years, three months and five days. His team were one-nil down to the Najaf based oil club when his coach Emad Mohammed instructed him to get  stripped and warmed-up and moments later he was sent on for another substitute, the same player who had replaced injured Jô Santos after only half-an hour of the match. The Brazilian’s injury and the club’s decision to subsequently terminate his contract by mutual consent, had opened the door for Hussein Ali.

After the 1-0 defeat to Naft Al-Wasat and the postponement of the Iraqi league, Hussein Ali was given his first league start a month later. It came against Karbala at the Al-Shaab Stadium after the White Seagulls had several key players out with long-term injuries including Brazilian Jô Santos and Syrian Ahmed Al-Douni another professional who had his contract terminated. In their absence Hussein played the full 90 minutes and was one of the best performers in the team and became a regular member of the side going into the remaining matches of the season.

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The following season, Al-Zawraa appointed Basim Qasim and once more, Hussein, the youngest member of the team, found himself on the bench for the first game of the season. It took a few matches before the teenager won over the coach with his willingness to fight and run his heart out for the team and became a regular fixture for the first team, out on the right wing. He had played in every round on Al-Zawraa’s road to the Iraq FA Cup final, where they lost 2-0 to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.

He was a substitute for the opening two matches of the season but after a 2-2 draw with Naft Al-Janoub, Hussein was given his first start in a 2-1 victory over Samawa and continued in the first team until Match day 10 when it looked as if his season was over after the player was involved in an freak accident which meant he was sidelined for 84 days!

On November 19, 2015 Al-Zawraa announced the distressing news that the player had struck by a stray bullet near his home in the east of Baghdad, with the medical staff at a local hospital having been able to remove the bullet from his foot! The club’s media spokesman Abdul-Rahman Rasheed told Al-Ghad Press that “a reckless shooting” had injured the player and he had been taken to a hospital in the Iraqi capital. “The medical staff succeeded in removing the bullet from the player’s foot and he is in good health now,” he added, noting that “the player was one of the outstanding talents in Iraqi football. The technical staff has given the player a limited rest period after which he will be able to resume training again,” the club spokesman concluded.

When he returned, the player was in and out of the team for the remainder of the first stage of the 2015-2016 season. The midfielder was out for three months as he battled back from the injury and returned on February 11, 2016 as a second half substitute in a 1-0 victory over Nadi Amana Baghdad and made only two further appearances in the first stage of the Iraqi League.

However by then, Hussein had gained a starting place in Basim Qasim’s team – developing a blossoming partnership on the right flank with full back and fellow Al-Thawra resident Alaa Mahawi. In the Elite Stage of the Iraqi league, Hussein started in all of the seven matches and scored two goals as the club won a record 13th Iraqi league title. At the end of the season, Hussein was voted the Iraqi League’s young player of the season and next came a call up to the Olympic team.

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Olympic regret

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro beckoned for the Al-Zawraa starlet or that was what many assumed would happen. The Olympic team had a training camp in the city of Barcelona and the coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad had named Hussein as one of the players to travel. Hussein was the final player added to the list. However there was a hitch, as his passport had less than six months before it expired, he was unable to apply for a visa and with the time consuming and bureaucratic nature of renewing an Iraqi passport, the player was grounded.

The Iraq FA instead sent Hussein to train with the national side in the city of Arbil while waiting for his visa application to be processed and spent a few days under the supervision of Radhi Shanaishel, a man he knew well from his time at Al-Zawraa. The Iraqi coach had long listed Hussein as a player for the future but was unable to call upon the midfielder as he had been wanted by Olympic coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad, so stuck between the two, Hussein travelled with the Olympic side but was never selected for the final squad for Rio.

The Olympic coach’s decision to go with more experienced players, some of whom were known to have been overage, meant Hussein Ali, not for the first time in his playing career, had been overlooked by a coach in Iraq’s youth set-up and at the same time Hussein had missed his opportunity to play for Iraq under Radhi Shanaishel in their warm-up matches in Tashkent, Doha and Kuala Lumpur. It would be another year before he made his international debut.

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National Team

The name of Hussein Ali has been in the notebooks of Iraq’s national coaches for the last three years. In early 2015, then Iraq coach Akram Salman had been impressed with the right sided attacker in the Iraqi El Clásico and pencilled in his name for a prospective call-up to the Iraqi national side. The 1-0 loss to rivals Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya was only the teenager’s second start in the Iraqi league but the national coach spotted his obvious talent early on in the match.

Having known nothing about the player prior to kick off, the coach asked for the name of Al-Zawraa’s No.13 during the course of the match and was told by a coach sitting next to him that his name was Hussein Ali who had been promoted from Al-Zawraa’s youth team. Akram stated that he had been a standout player despite Al-Zawraa’s defeat in the El Clásico and said he hoped to call-up the player to the national side in the near future. But not long after, Akram was sacked and the call-up for Hussein never materialised.

But he was not forgotten by the Iraq FA and when Radhi Shanaishel was appointed coach of Iraq in the summer of 2016, he wanted to have a look at the Al-Zawraa starlet even though he had agreed with the Olympic coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad to allow him to play for the Under 23s. Radhi had known of the player whilst he was managing Al-Zawraa and Hussein was a youth player there.

Almost a year on with his former coach at Al-Zawraa Basim Qasim taking the job of national coach, Hussein Ali was one of six players added to a World Cup qualifying squad sent to the AFC and instead of easing the youngster into the side, Basim Qasim made the 20 year-old one of the prime fragments in his new 3-2-3-2 formation. Iraq were preparing for their final World Cup qualifiers with Thailand and the UAE and had organised a warm-up against Syria in Malaysia. Hussein started on the right of a three-man midfield, with his ability to move around the field and play on either flank or in central midfield utilized well by the coach in his new system. The player shone and started in each of the remaining two World Cup qualifiers fitting neatly in Basim Qasim’s new fluid midfield of engineers, to compensate for the absence of a natural creative player of the standing of Hadi Ahmed or Nashat Akram.

In the final qualifier in Amman with the UAE, Hussein started in a four-man midfield made up of Mahdi Kamil, Bashar Resan and Justin Meram, anchored by defensive midfielder Saad Abdul-Amir. The players would come deep and pick up the ball from midfield and start moves, which Hussein Ali has been a master of in the Iraqi league.

Some working behind the scenes for the Iraqi national side had already heard of the name Hussein Ali years back and saw his emergence at senior international level as no surprise. In the summer of 2011 Hussein travelled to Sweden to play at the Gothia Cup as part of a delegation from the Ammo Baba Football School and the team played in the youth tournament under the name of Kufa, a city in Iraq. The coach of the side was non-other than Basil Gorgis, a former national player who played at the 1986 World Cup and is now Iraq’s team manager!

‘The Hussein Ali Gulf Cup’

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At the 23rd Arabian Gulf Cup in Kuwait, the name of Hussein Ali has been on the lips of every fan and pundit, seen by many as the discovery of the championship. However his three man of the match awards has come with some controversy after the player quipped he had yet to see anything from the sponsors apart from the giant cardboard cheque briefly handed to him for the ceremonial post-match photo after each game. The off-the-cuff remark, whether in jest or not, led the Gulf Cup organising committee to come out and confirm the player had been the recipient of 3,000 Kuwaiti dinars for his three man of the match awards with the player’s signature confirming he had received the money from the VIVA Telecom sponsors. The player later posted a short video to say that the video of denying receiving any money from the sponsors had been made just hours before he had received the gift from the sponsors. Despite the mild storm off the field, Hussein Ali will be looking forward to leading his country to a fourth Gulf Cup title and a first championship in 30 years.

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