The hanging goalposts of Babylon: Iraq's football diversity
“It’s good that we will not see you again in the national team, now go back to your beloved Iraq and never come back to Sweden.”
This comment was just one of many directed towards 21-year-old footballer Hussein Ali. He decided to declare his allegiance to his native Iraq after representing Sweden at youth level starting at the age of 16. Perpetrators told him to "tear up his passport and go home" and demanded that he repay the cost of all of the national team youth camps that he had attended.
“It’s better to invest in those who want to be a part of Sweden’s national team, rather than those who want to get an education for free and then return to the country they came from, which hasn’t done s*** for them,” another user commented.
Ali had to turn off all comments on his Instagram account in order to protect himself from the barrage of hate speech. It's heart-breaking to think about the potential devastation these attitudes could wreak on the careers of young and ambitious athletes in a sport where a player's performance is intimately entwined with their morale.
There is an intriguing story hidden behind the abuse, one in which Ali is not the only character. He is part of an assortment of young Iraqi athletes who recently decided to ally themselves with the Lions of Mesopotamia. Many of them have previously earned caps for the youth teams of prominent European nations, while others possess dual nationalities.
Among those who have also made the switch from Sweden to Iraq, we find midfielder Amir Al-Ammari, who played a pivotal role in Iraq's triumphant Gulf Cup victory in January, as well as Kevin Yakob, who plays for Aarhus in Denmark, who recently achieved 3rd place in the Danish Superliga.
Another notable name is Ali Hayder, a strong and tenacious teenage forward who is presently playing for Stoke City FC's U21 squad. Hayder was remarkably called up to a recent U23 camp in March at the age of just 17. In the team's overwhelming 3-0 victory over Vietnam, he entered the game as a substitute and produced a slick cross that helped set up the third goal.
But why have these men decided to rekindle their paternal ties now, particularly when playing for a European team would seem to provide a better chance of success at the international level?
Apart from their success in the early 2000s, when Iraq overcame the odds and won the 2007 Asian Cup, the nation's football development has stalled, with no significant challenges being mounted on the continental or global stage. Following its fourth-place result at the 2004 Olympic Games, Iraq peaked at #39 in FIFA's World Rankings in 2004. Iraq has since struggled to recapture its previous glory. The national team has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986, and their best performance at the Asian Cup in recent years was a fourth-place finish in 2015.
I had the chance to speak with football journalist Hassanane Balal, who runs the popular social media site IraqFootballPod. Hassanane has built a strong network inside the Iraqi footballing community as a lifelong supporter of the game. Along with being their friend, he works closely with many of the players, coaches, and supporters.
He credits Jesús Casas' recent appointment as manager, made after Adnan Dirjal took over as president of the Iraqi Football Association, with the majority of the team's recent success. Both Dirjal, a former player and manager with over 100 caps for Iraq and Casas, who most recently served as the assistant coach for the Spanish national team before joining Iraq, have been essential figures in the nation's recent footballing improvements. Dirjal's international career spanned from 1978 to 1990, during which he achieved numerous tournament victories, while Casas has also served as the assistant coach for Barcelona and Watford FC.
“There is now structure within the national team, and with these appointments, we can see that Iraqi football is moving in the right direction, that’s the first signifier of success,” Hassanane states.
I had the chance to go to Cádiz, Spain, with Hassanane, where we filmed an interview with Casas. He graciously invited us to his hometown to discuss all things football on camera. He said, "I'm very happy when players call me to ask about getting Iraqi passports when they don't have one yet," when questioned about the recent surge of overseas players.
"The national team has undergone many changes. As it's crucial to follow up with the players, we stay in touch with them,” said Casas. “My staff follows between 50–60 guys, but this list is continuously changing.”
He considers it to be essential for all players to create close ties and maintain harmony within the team, this is one of his primary managerial strategies. He recalled a time during the training camp when he wasn't happy with what he saw, before a friendly match against Russia earlier this year.
"I was not happy as I saw different groups and cliques among the squad. In the following training camp in Spain, I told them that if I saw this happening again, the players would be out. Anyone who creates a bad atmosphere will be removed.”
This mentality drives the team's local and foreign players to mesh and develop better relationships. In recent years, this has been a sensitive issue that has occasionally led to conflicts between players and management. Casas is also determined to eradicate any age-related stigmas within the team, stating, "As for squad selection, I've said previously that I don't mind if you are 38 or 17. We only look at your level, and if your level is good, you can play.”
This concept unites these players by putting more emphasis on their similarities than their differences, and the effects are already becoming clear. Barely three months into his position, Casas had a significant impact on the Iraqi team, which went on to win their first trophy during his tenure.
The Arabian Gulf Cup was contested in Basra in January 2023, marking the tournament's return to Iraq 44 years after its previous visit in 1979. Iraq was named champion. According to Hassanane, the Gulf Cup victory was a significant motivator for more players to join the Iraqi team.
"A significant number of players saw this and told me themselves how much it meant to them to witness the joy of the Iraqi people. They had no idea that football held such significance in Iraq, but upon seeing Basra stadium filled, they too aspire to be part of history and to bring happiness to their people," he stated.
In the ensuing months, more players decided to switch sides and join the Lions of Mesopotamia. Even after participating in 10 games for Germany's U19 team, Youssef Amyn, a player for Feyenoord in the Eredivisie (Dutch First Division), declared his intention to represent Iraq internationally. He was then selected for the U20 World Cup, where he shone in all three of his group matches and became one of Iraq's star performers.
André Alsanati, who had previously played for Sweden's U17 team, was another player who switched teams in March. On September 7th, he competed in his first international game for Iraq against India in a friendly match as part of the 49th edition of the King’s Cup friendly tournament, held in Thailand. Joining him were several other expat players, including Frans Putros (formerly with Denmark U21), Amir Al-Ammari (formerly with Sweden U19), Osama Rashid (formerly with Netherlands U19), and Merchas Doski (born in Germany to Iraqi parents).
"There has been a significant influx of expat players from European nations, and many of these players maintain personal friendships. When one of them commits to Iraq, it encourages those in proximity to do the same," Hassanane revealed, highlighting that many of the players mentioned earlier maintain strong relationships.
This team ended up beating the hosts Thailand in the final and lifted the trophy on the 10th September, being the second piece of silverware for Iraq this year under Casas. For young players like Ali Al-Hamadi and Zidane Iqbal (both eligible to play for England), this is their first time getting their hands on an international medal, and it will provide further fuel for their desire to succeed with the Iraqi national team.
Since the majority of players have been born and bred in Iraq throughout history, expat players may not have always been present in previous squads, but there has always been a diverse representation of the many ethnic and religious groups that Iraq has historically been home to.
Many may not be aware, but certain regions of Iraq have long been the homeland of the Assyrians, an ethnic group with roots dating back to ancient Mesopotamian times. Assyrians are primarily Christians, and many have immigrated to numerous countries over the years, particularly to those in Europe, the United States, and other Middle Eastern nations. They number over 5 million people as of today.
Two Assyrian goal scorers, Youra Eshaya and Ammo Baba, scored in Iraq's inaugural international match, a dramatic 3-3 draw against Morocco at the 1957 Arab Games. When Youra Eshaya later joined Bristol Rovers, he created history by being the first Iraqi to play in England. Nearly 70 years later, another Iraqi-Assyrian star is making an impact in English football.
Alexander Aoraha, a strong midfielder who spent his whole childhood career at Queens Park Rangers, has recently broken into the first-team squad. Aoraha chose to declare his loyalty to Iraq in 2022 despite being born in London, in honour of his father's Iraqi Chaldean Catholic heritage. Aoraha recently scored 2 goals in a 13-0 win versus Macau in the U23 Asian Cup Qualifiers.
Following his retirement from the sport, Ammo Baba went on to manage the Iraqi national team on eight occasions. His most notable managerial stint took place in the 1980s, which are frequently referred to as the "golden generation" of Iraqi football. Iraq trounced its regional rivals during this time, enhancing the team's standing as one of the finest in Asia. In addition, this team also included Assyrian stars like Basil Gorgis, who is regarded as one of Iraq's all-time finest players.
Other notable Assyrian players in Iraq’s current squad include Justin Meram, who plays for Charlotte FC in the MLS, and Kevin Yakob, who was mentioned earlier in this article.
As an Iraqi, I've always taken pride in the rich tapestry of our region's history. It resembles a garden, like the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where a multitude of fruits thrive, each with its distinctive colours and sizes. In this lush garden, the fruits represent the diverse ethnic groups of our nation, blending harmoniously together.
We must come together and keep in mind that every person is a soul if we are to overcome those who aim to divide and conquer. The different streams of our common humanity that enrich our collective journey through time are ever-flowing, just like our revered Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.
Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_