Iraqi football fans have waited patiently for a natural goalscorer to take the mantle of former captain Younis Mahmoud and the young Mohanad Ali who today played his 100th game finally looks to be the player everyone has been waiting for. Meme (pronounced Mimi) is a child prodigy, who has been destined to reach the top, beating a court case to play for Iraq and after breaking out at the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE, top European clubs have shown interest in the youngster, here is his story.
Ammo Baba Football School
Mohanad was born on June 20, 2000 in the Iraqi capital, the fourth child of Ali Kadhim Lafta and Ibtisam Mohammed Jaweet. He is nicknamed Mimi because of his inability to say Mama when he was a child and instead pronounced it Mimi – the name has followed him around since.
His first steps in football came at the age of just five trying to follow his eldest brother to play at a local neighbourhood football pitch. His brother would lock the front door so his younger sibling could not go with him. But the youngster would leap onto the roof and jump onto the street and follow him to the local football pitch. When he found his brother, he would not turn him away.
His next door neighbour saw him and advised him to take him to the Ammo Baba Football School and they spent the whole day searching for the correct size shirt and shorts at Al-Shourja market and finally found a Brazilian kit with the No.9 jersey. But they couldn’t find the correct size footwear so his brother placed some cotton buds at the tip of the boot so his foot would fit.
After leaving the Ammo Baba Football School he was called up to play for Saad Hashim’s Under 14s team. The striker was top scorer with six goals at 2013 Asian Youth Games in Nanjing, where the side beat Singapore, Kuwait and Thailand in the quarterfinals before they lost to Iran in the semis and the third and fourth match on penalties to North Korea.
On his return to Baghdad, he was interviewed on Ali Rayeh’s sports show for Iraq Al-Hurra channel highlighting the plight of his family living in a rented accommodation and threatened with eviction, with the teenager hoping to sign for an Iraqi club to help his parents and siblings and buy them a home.
On 25 September 2013, he signed a five-year contract with Al-Shurta and made his debut on March 26, 2014 against Al-Talaba at the Al-Shaab coming on for the last six minutes for Mahdi Kamil. On the same field was his cousin Ali Salah – the son of his aunt on his mother’s side – who scored Al-Talaba in stoppage time with Mohanad kicking off the restart!
During the same summer Ali Adnan moved to Italy, after scoring five goals at the 2015 WAFF U-16 Championship in Amman, Mohanad was called up to the Al-Shurta first team by coach Hakim Shaker and the young striker scored his first ever goal for the club in a 5-1 win over FC Guria Lanchkhuti’s reserve side and netted five goals in the Police Club’s four pre-season matches in Georgia.
But on his return to Baghdad his passport was confiscated and the Iraq FA refused to allow him to represent Iraqi teams in any international competitions and sanctioned the player missing the qualifiers for the AFC U-17 Championship in Doha held the following month
A day before Mohanad should have been lining up for the Iraq U-17s against Tajikistan, Al-Shurta re-registered him under the name of Hassan Ali so he could play in the Iraqi league and he took part in the first league game of the season in their 2-0 defeat to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, coming on after fifteen minutes for Amjad Kelaf who limped off injured.
In the next game against Al-Sinaa, Mohanad or Hassan came on as a 55th minute substitute for Amjad Atwan and 22 minutes later scored the only goal of the game heading in an in-swinging right wing cross from Mahdi Kamil. The following season after finding limited first team opportunities, he decided to sign a one-year loan deal with lowly Al-Kahraba and went onto become the club’s leading scorer with 12 league goals.
The player returned to his parent club and at the pre-season training camp in Antalya, the player asked a member of the club’s administration for the number 11 the same number he had worn at Al-Kahraba. However the kitman told him that he would give him a number that he would succeed in and handed him the number 18 and told him he would succeed and become the club’s top scorer with the squad number.
Change of fortunes
The club had made a big money signing in Ayman Hussein from Al-Naft and Mohanad started on the bench at the start of the season as their new striker scored five goals in five games. Mohanad had failed to score in any of his first four matches but his fortunes changed after he received a call-up for the national team when he travelled with the squad at the Gulf Cup in Kuwait. When he returned to Baghdad, Ayman had left the club and Mohanad started scoring goals and finished the season with 17 goals. He has now scored 46 goals in 100 league matches since making his debut in 2014.
Iraq’s national coach Basim Qasim had wanted to call-up striker when he was at Al-Kahraba but was unavailable due to “administrative issues.” For two seasons Mohanad was forced to register under the name of Hassan Ali until an Iraqi Court ruled in his favour, stating the identity of Mohanad Ali had been his real one and so allowed to apply for a new passport and was called into the Gulf Cup squad.
Since making his senior debut for Iraq, Mohanad Ali has gone from strength to strength at both club and international level, with two goals at the Asian Cup earlier in the year and with a first league title in six years in sight for Al-Shurta, the forward now looks set for Europe next season, with Juventus, Manchester City, İstanbul Başakşehir, Galatasaray, Benfica interested in the 18-year-0ld striker.