In Iraqi football, dreams can come true

Al Zawraa Club, Baghdad

Al Zawraa Club, Baghdad. Ahmed Abdul Jabbar is second from the bottom right.

Ahmed Abdul Jabbar has never scored an official goal for the Iraqi national team. He is an electrical engineer, and comes from a middle class family. In those ways and others, he is different from the majority of Iraqi football players that have graced the page and found themselves in the hearts and minds of fans from around the world.

Abdul Jabbar was born in Baghdad in 1978, and quickly took to the streets to live out his footballing dreams. It didn’t take too long before he made the move from the Al Ghazaliya Stars, a neighborhood team, to the highest level of Iraqi football; the premier division.

We met with Abdul Jabbar in 2006 while he was part of a group of Iraqi players that were playing in the Qatari Stars League. Since then, Abdul Jabbar has returned to Iraq, where he still plays in the country’s top flight.

Q: When and where did football appear in your life? A: Every player in the world starts on the streets. Where I lived, in the Al Ghazaliya neighborhood in Baghdad, we boasted a serious neighborhood side: Nijoom Al Ghazaliya (The Stars of Ghazaliya), and I used to played with them. It was then, on the streets, playing against other neighborhood teams, that I realized I had talent. I played all the time.

When I successfully graduated from high school, my father asked me what I wanted as a gift. I told him that I wanted him to come with me to try out for a professional club. I wasn’t interested in success and money. I was inspired by the way millions of people loved players like Laith Hussein and Ahmed Radhi. To make a long story short, I began playing with the youth squad at Al Rasheed, which later was known as Al Karkh. After three years, in 1997, I moved to Al Zawraa, and began playing for the biggest club in Iraq.

The Al-Karkh football club derives is named after the western half of Baghdad, as in the western shore of the Tigris river. The eastern side is known as Al-Rasafa.
Q: For four years, you played football and also went to university, where you graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering; how difficult was that? A: It was tough to study and play. Football requires travel, and training, both which take up a lot of time. On top of that, the subject matter that I was studying was really hard as well. But my dad’s conditions were clear: if I failed or dropped out, then there were would be no football. So I did it, I went to school and played.

I feel that having a formal education gave me the ability to with coaches’ tactics better, and perhaps has also even helped me on the field in certain situations. Although the ability to play soccer is mostly a natural talent, there are factors that help to refine and develop that talent, and that includes schooling

Q: Tell us about your first game in the top flight of Iraqi football. A: One day, someone from the Al Karkh youth team called my house and told me that the senior squad was short, because some of their players were called up to play for the Olympic team, and that I was needed. I grabbed my cleats, called my friend, and hoped on a minibus cab (fortaat), and headed out to the Shaab Stadium (the People’s Stadium).

Ahmed Abdul JabbarWhen we arrived, I wasn’t allowed into the players’ area because no one had seen me before and I must have looked way too young to be a player for the senior squad for such a big team. Luckily, I spotted someone from the club who knew me, and so I was taken into the dressing room. I didn’t even have my own jersey. I had to wear someone else’s. After sitting on the bench for the first half, Douglas Aziz who was our head coach at the time told me, that I was see action after the break.

With fifteen minutes to go, and with our team down 2-1 to Al Shorta to a packed stadium, he turned to me and signaled for me to get ready to go in. Being on the field was nerve wracking. The majority of the fans were cheering for the opposite team. The clock was running down, and it seemed that we were headed to defeat, when I found myself in front of the net, picking up the ball off a juicy rebound, and putting it in past Emad Hashim, and into the net. I scored the tying goal, my first goal, in my first game.

On the way back home, the busses were packed with Al Shorta fans that were also leaving the gam. I remember them saying “look at him, he looks so young.” They swore at me, and made of fun me, but they couldn’t take away my joy.

Ahmed Abdul Jabbar has played professional football in Iraq, Qatar and Jordan.
Q: You are currently playing for the Al Shamal club in Qatar; what are the main differences between this experience and playing professional football in Iraq? A: I came to Qatar as part of a wave of Iraqi players that were leaving the country to play abroad. The Qatari league is currently in the eyes of the media, attracting some big names, and offers players like me the opportunity to play in world class facilities. But, Al Shamal, where I currently play is not the kind of club I aspire to play for. The league is spending an enormous amount of money on the game, mostly to buy legitimacy in the eyes of international onlookers, but despite that, and despite all the problems that are facing the game in Iraq, the Iraqi league is still stronger. For me, and for Qatari football general, the most serious barrier is the lack of fan presence in the stadiums. Without fans and support, a player will never flourish.

Q: What are your experiences with the Iraqi national team? A: My first game with the national team was a friendly, in Beirut against the Lebanese team in 1997. Being called up to the national team was a tremendous honor. I couldn’t believe that I was going to travel with so many players who I grew up looking up to. I was young, and the experience gave me so much confidence when I returned to the club.

But playing for the national team of Iraq doesn’t come without its challenges. Although I was lucky enough not to be physically punished by Uday (Saddam’s son, and former head of the game in Iraq), many of my friends and teammates were. None of the players wanted to take penalty kicks, out of fear of missing them and being punished. It was horrible.

As players, we felt ignored by the global football family, and we were made to feel unlike other teams. No one was happy to give us entry visas for away games and tournaments. We had to sit on the floor of airports for hours on end. That had an effect on our ability to play.

Unlike richer teams, playing in more stable societies, where players are held in regard, as players of the Iraqi national team, neither our football association nor the international football community gave us no respect

Q: With so much danger and under such horrible conditions, why do you play then? A: This is a question not be asked. It’s a duty on every player to play for his country. To wear the flag on your chest and represent all the peoples of Iraq is a huge honor. No matter how terrible the conditions were in which we played, every player still dreamt of being a player on the national team.

The situation in Iraq is very difficult right now. There is no security, no playing fields, no financing. But I think that the future for football is going to be bright. We have to be off the pitch and on our way home before the sun sets, the fields are in horrible conditions, and players make very little money.

Despite these challenges, I am certain that Iraqi football will develop in record time, especially in comparison to other teams in the region.

We are going through difficult times. I want fans to look at these factors when they are analyzing the team, and the players. I urge them to support the Iraqi national team all the way to the end. It’s a team that deserves to win. Iraqi players are a rare breed in terms of their raw talent and passionate desire to win.