The life of a footballer in Iraq has evolved from last century, even in the early days when Saddam Hussein’s son Uday permitted players to turn professional and ply their trade abroad, those tiny first steps has not seen many of the top Iraqi players move very far nor play at any of the world’s elite clubs.
It seemed Mohanad Ali, Iraq’s new young superstar, would change all that. In the past offers for Iraq’s best players from the world’s best clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona had been scuppered by politics and more pertinently the amateur status of the Iraqi game, but in post-Saddam Iraq, players now have more freedom in their footballing careers.
At the recent Asian Cup in the UAE, Iraq’s prospect Mohanad Ali was linked to a host of Europe’s top clubs, from Galatasaray, Man City to Juventus, however unlike transfer rumours from the past, the offers and interest were genuine. Never in Iraqi football history has this happened, no other Iraqi player has produced such vast interest or noise on the world market. It may not be at a fraction of the kind of interest a Kylian Mbappe or Neymar could generate, but for Iraq, placed 61st in FIFA’s world rankings, it is considerable and a first. Juventus, Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe the two Manchester clubs City and United and a host of other top European clubs were in talks with Mohanad’s representatives over a possible move. However in the end, the player or shall I say his club chose Qatar and Al-Duhail as his destination.
Europe or the Gulf
What happened was that there were too many parties involved in the negotiations and they were all looking out for their own interests, instead of the interests of the player. While his agents looked at Mohanad Ali as a talent with the prospect of a long-term career in Europe, whether in Italy or Turkey, the club’s representatives had their own middlemen touting their coveted player to gain the biggest deal possible for the club, and they instead looked to the Gulf.
Al-Shurta had not considered nor entertained any of the offers from European clubs, nor did any of the clubs receive a response. The Iraqi club it seems had already engineered a move through their own channels and go-betweens. It was the club who sat down with the player and every club official who spoke to him advised him the move to Qatar was the best option for him. The player was poorly advised. Europe for him is still a dream however does he really believe European clubs will come knocking again after he decides to end his venture in Qatar? And how much money would a European club pay for Mohanad Ali? The Iraqi striker would be priced out of any future move to Europe.
In the local Iraqi press, there had been statements from the Police Club that the player’s preference was a move to the Gulf, however the player knew of the other offers and had privately expressed an interest in moving to Europe. If according to the player’s own club Al-Shurta, Mohanad Ali wanted to move to the Gulf, why would he sign a contract with two English-based football agents who have a history of getting players to Europe and why on the final day of the winter transfer window, did Ali Adnan’s father and brother (with connections to Mohanad Ali’s agent) travel to Al-Shurta’s headquarters in an attempt to get the player’s release to try to complete a move to Juventus.
The Iraqi club wanted to sell the player to the highest bidder and no European club were prepared to place bids of over $2 million dollars on a 19-year-old striker who had never played any football outside of the Iraqi league. What is clear is Al-Shurta never wanted any European club involved, as they never responded to any offer nor even stated how much they wanted for the player. It was the Gulf all the way.
First it was UAE’s Al-Ain who offered to buy Al-Shurta a team bus and host them during a pre-season and then came Al-Duhail with the biggest deal of them all. It was the offer Al-Shurta had been looking for and despite claiming publicly they considered Mohanad Ali to be a national treasure and were looking out for his future, their sole aim was to get the best deal possible for their club, where ever he ended up. Al-Duhail’s offer is a reported $2m to Al-Shurta (plus the Qatari club will pay for a brand new 2019 model Mercedes victory parade bus, a team bus and all expenses of a 40-man delegation at a training camp in Doha where Al-Shurta will play Al-Duhail in a friendly), while the player himself will earn $1.25m per season over five years. Al-Shurta state from the $2m transfer fee, the club will receive just $700,000 USD and the rest going to the player!
Dealing with clubs and their officials in Iraq is a dirty business as many foreign and even domestic players will testify to, at present there are almost one hundred complaints lodged against various Iraqi league clubs due to unpaid player salaries, some of which stretch back four seasons! Contracts are sometimes just a blank piece of paper with nothing but the player’s signature and other times clubs have known to change the length of a contract after a contract has been signed. There is little regulation or monitoring of basic employment laws in a domestic game where unsanctioned agents and middlemen are prevalent. Players are seen as commodities and when clubs have an opportunity to make a lot of money, they will go with the highest bidder. The Iraqi player does not understand that the power is with him rather than with the club, who only have the right to set a transfer fee in order to release the player.
The right move?
For an Iraqi player to carve himself out a career in Europe is very difficult, first he has to get an offer or be scouted and then sometimes even getting to Europe can be difficult. Iraq’s Swiss-based professional Sherko Karim had to wait months before he could get a visa to take part in trials in France and was only picked up by Grasshopper Zürich late on. A string of injuries and operations have hampered his European adventure, but currently he is the only young Iraqi prospect to move to Europe early on in his career. Even if Sherko fails, there will be clubs in the Middle East willing to offer the striker a considerable contract if he decides to leave Europe.
An Iraqi players’ usual destination is the Gulf States in Qatar and the UAE and this has been from the day Iraqi players were allowed to turn professional. In 1993, thirteen Iraqi players moved to Qatar to play in their top flight and they all earned good money, but some yearned for moves to Europe. Then came the next generation, the Nashats, the Basim Abbas’ and the Younis’ and they first went to the Middle East and had the dream of playing in Europe one day. Basim Abbas and Nashat Akram had stints but even Nashat admitted many years later, he had delayed his move for too long. Younis Mahmoud called his missed opportunity to play in France as the regret of his life and admitted he was a coward for never taking the chance! Hawar Mulla-Mohammed was the only one of that generation to move to Europe and have any success but even he was scared of moving to the Bundesliga when Arminia Bielefeld came knocking and years later moved to Cyprus instead to play at the little Iraqi club of Apollon Limassol.
Mohanad Ali had offers to move to ten other clubs, some of whom are in the top leagues on the European continent but decided to move to Qatar. The decision may not have been entirely in the player’s own hands, as it looks very much like Al-Shurta wanted to control every aspect of Mohanad Ali’s transfer and refused to speak to any of his representatives while one insider believed the club was trying to work with certain football agents. It looks very much like Al-Shurta never wanted him to move to Europe in the first place. They never responded to any official offer nor replied to Juventus or Manchester City or any of the European clubs to make their demands for the services of the player and Al-Shurta negotiated with clubs in the Gulf only.
The club’s vice president Wahab Al-Taei stated the player was 100% property of the club and this is correct, however he like many other Iraqi sports officials or even people in football in Iraq fail to understand that as the player had signed a contract with an agent, negotiations with any perspective club should have gone through his agent and not the club. The transfer fee would have been negotiated by Al-Shurta however the player’s contract and everything else concerning the player should have been negotiated by his agent. This kind of understanding over football agents and how they work is completely absent in Iraqi football. “Al-Shurta is the sole owner of the player, this is professionalism,” the president states “Mimi is our property,” obviously not understanding how football agents work. Al-Shurta’s team supervisor Hashim Ridha was even more oblivious over the transfer offers and clubs declaring their interest, stating some of the clubs had not stated the amount they were offering for the player in their official letters, not understanding they were making their declarations of interest in acquiring the services of Mohanad Ali and that they wanted the Iraqi club to start negotiations over his release.
The player himself wanted to move to a country similar to Iraq, like Turkey, and could have earned 900,000 – 1m Euros if he decided to move to Europe. However it seems the club despite offers from the likes of Juventus, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, had a word in the player’s ear suggesting to him the offers were not official and all the way through recommended he move to the Gulf.
Some will say the player was looking out for his own family and future with his move to Qatar, however the contracts on offer from various European clubs would have made him a wealthy man and would have set him up for life, and even if the move to Europe failed, the player could have returned to the Gulf where there would have been plenty of suitors vying for his signature.
It is unlikely Mohanad Ali will ever have this kind of opportunity in his career. The Gulf and its riches and chasing the easy money could have waited, and the striker in the future will find making the move from Gulf to Europe all that more difficult. For a footballer from Iraq, making the right move early on is important, especially if they have a desired destination, just ask Hussein Ali, Ali Husni or Humam Tariq. Doha or any Gulf league has never been nor ever will be a gateway into Europe for any Iraqi or Middle Eastern based player. Had Mohanad taken the more difficult route, tested himself in Europe and succeeded, he would have opened doors for not only himself, but plenty of other young Iraqi players.
The vision for Mohanad Ali or Mimi is to eventually reach Europe and he sees Al-Duhail as the first stepping stone. Younis Mahmoud, who was one of the people who helped in the deal which took Mohanad to Doha says the Qatari club would be willing to allow the forward to move to Europe if he wishes in the future, however it seems there have been no safeguards stipulated in his contract over such a scenario and Al-Duhail would want a substantial compensation from their investment. But how many top European clubs would spend millions on an untested player from Asia?
Mohanad Ali’s transfer to Al-Duhail follows the same old trend, the mentality of the Iraqi player along with the whole environment and culture around the domestic game has to change before we see an Iraqi move to any one of Europe’s top leagues. The young striker’s professional excursion will be a lesson to other Iraqi youngsters. They will learn very quickly a move to the Gulf is not a gateway into Europe.