Wonderboy

Emad “Al Umda” Mohammed was born to be a football player. By the age of 15, Iraqi coaches and scouts were touting him as a future striking prodigy, and he didn’t disappoint. Emad would go on to play for Iraq in stadiums around the world and score some of the country’s most important goals. From the winner in the Final of the 2000 Asian U-19 Cup against Japan in Tehran, to the acrobatic clincher in the Quarter Finals of the Men’s Olympic Tournament against Australia, Emad brought happiness to millions of Iraqis around the world.

Emad Mohammed

Emad “Al Umda” Mohammed first made his mark in the world of Iraqi football by scoring an extra time winner in the Final of the 2000 Asian U-19 Championship against Japan. From that point on, Emad Mohammed would feature in some of Iraq’s most memorable achievements in stadiums around the world. Known for his explosive speed and striking prowess, Emad was a much waited savior for a footballing nation that was in need of someone to uplift them from the rubble of war and destruction.

We met with Emad Mohammed twice in 2004, first in a lengthy interview after one of his games in the Qatari league, and secondly, on the eve of Iraq’s return to the Gulf Cup, also in Doha. In the 9 years ago since the interview, Emad’s career has gone through turbulent times, missing out on the 2007 Asian Cup win, failing to impress at Egyptian giants at Al Zamalek, and being snubbed for the current campaign to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, set to take place in Brazil.

After spending the majority of his professional career split between Qatar and Iran, Emad returned to Iraq, where he currently plays for the club where it started, Al Zawraa. Regardless of how much of Emad’s potential was realized on the pitch, he will always be remembered as a wonderboy who captured the heart of a nation.

The Beginnings

Q: Why did you decide to live your life playing football?

I began playing in my neighborhood in Karbala when I used to get home from school, even though the majority of the school day involved playing football anyways. I used to be a supporter of Al Quwa Al Jawiya. I remember that if Al Quwa Al Jawiya ever lost to Al Zawraa, I couldn’t go to school the next day because I didn’t want to be teased by the other kids, most of whom were Al Zawraa fans. So, you can see that football has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Al Zawraa and Al Quwa Al Jawiya are two Baghdad based teams that make up Iraq’s quintessential football rivalry.
Q: But, how did this love for a game turn into a career? A: It seemed to be a seamless and very natural transition. I wanted to play more football so I played for the school boys side of FC Karbala. I was then chosen to move up into their youth squad, where I enjoyed a successful start. It was only a short while after that when the big clubs from Baghdad started taking notice of my skills.

Most of the interest came from the Al Zawraa youth team. I found that to be ironic, because of my loyalty to their arch rivals: Al Quwa Al Jawiya. Nonetheless, I moved to Baghdad and quickly moved into first team. In my first season with the senior squad, I scored twice in a game against Al Quwa Al Jawiya. The love I got from the Al Zawraa fans ended my past love affair with Al Quwa Al Jawiya. I don’t think of them anymore.

Just like every other Iraqi child from my generation, my favorite player was Ahmed Radhi. To play with him in Al Zawraa was an unexplainable experience. It was only a short time ago that I was playing on the streets of Karbala. I ended up learning so much from him, and I still carry that knowledge and experience with me to this day. I will never forget the first time I played for Al Zawraa at the Al Shaab Stadium.

I remember my first goal, it was against Al Naft (Oil). In fact I scored twice on that day. I actually remember all of my goals. With Al Zawraa, I won three league titles and three Iraqi cups. Moving there was a very move from me, and gave me a great start to my career. My successes at Al Zawraa were also behind me getting called up to the Iraqi youth team as well.

Conquering Asia and Beyond

Q: You played with the Iraqi National U-19 team for one year, and during that short time you managed to win the Asian U-19 Championship and play in the youth FIFA World Cup in Argentina. What do you remember from that year? A: In the lead up to the Asian youth cup in Iran, we were all eager to repeat the glories of Hussain Saeed, whose team won the same tournament in 1977 in Iran. There was absolutely no support or motivation offered to us by the Football Association, so we were driven by our pure determination and hard work. Reaching the final four was an achievement on its own, because it guaranteed a spot at the youth World Cup in Argentina.

We were singing and dancing in the dressing room ahead of our semifinal against the hosts Iran, but we didn’t let the joy of qualification cloud our desire to win the entire tournament. We need it would be tough game, playing against the hosts, and will all the history between the two countries. We knew the refereeing would probably be biased. We were already treated unfairly with poor transportation, and low quality food at the hotel. We were prepared for anything.

Iran wasted many chances that day, and maybe they deserved to win. But we played well, and luck was on our side. Ahmed Ali, the goalkeeper, was a real hero during the deciding penalty shootout. He stopped three penalty kicks, and eventually scored the spot kick that took Iraq through to the finals. After beating Iran, we had our eyes set on the championship.

The final game was against Japan, the favorite, and a very difficult team. We ended up having the upper hand in the first half, but we couldn’t take advantage of our chances. The game went into extra time, and I was fortunate to score the Golden Goal that day. Nashat Akram played a long ball, that ended up with the Japanese goalkeeper, who came out and headed it out of their area, ball ended up with me, and I easily chipped it over him for the win. It was my left foot too! On our return to Iraq, fifteen thousand supporters waited for us at the Iraq-Iran border waited to greet us that day. It was an unbelievable sight that proved again that we have the best fans in the world.

Watch Emad’s Golden Goal in slow motion:
Q: How did winning the Asian U-19 tournament change your career? A: It was a tremendous boost for me. I was top scorer at that tournament. I was selected for the Asian dream team that year, as well as being selected as the second best player in Iraq. It was a great personal achievement for myself, and more importantly, for Iraq.

It gave me the chance to play at the 2001 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina. I remember going in to the tournament, none of us thought that we would make it to the second round, because we had football superpowers Germany and Brazil in our group. I must admit, however, that after beating Canada in our opening match, some of us actually thought that we would go all the way. That was the kind of confidence we were playing with. But our worst fears of Brazil came true in our following match. We lost 6-1, but I fulfilled a dream by being the first Iraqi player to score against the Brazilians.

To be so successful at that young age mostly goes back to our coach Adnan Hamad, someone who worked with me while playing for Iraq and at the club level in Al Zawraa. In fact, Iraqi football owes so much to him. Unlike many coaches, is the kind of coach that doesn’t like superstars on his squad. He wants team players. He is a great teacher, and has been the most important driving force behind my success.

Emad Mohammed celebrates one of his many goals for Iraq.

Emad Mohammed celebrates one of his many goals for Iraq.

Q: It was rumored at the time that all the success attracted the attention of European scouts. Was any of that true? A: That was not a rumor at all. AC Milan made a serious offer for my services, after one of their scouts spent two weeks in Iraq. But the Football Association, and particularly Uday Saddam Hussein, didn’t agree. I have also received offers from Fulham in the English Premier League, PSV Eindhoven from the Netherlands, and the Turkish club Fenerbahce. In fact, I was set to move to PSV Eindhoven, but that fell through because of my injury.

I’m playing in to regain my strength and allow other clubs to look at me again. European clubs need to make sure a player is healthy and up to standards before they acquire him. I am relatively new to the Qatari league, but I don’t think that attracting old players at the end of their careers is going to be a successful strategy. I am here because football in Iraq at the moment is difficult, and the facilities in Qatar are world class.

Emad Mohammed has played professional football in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and Qatar.

Athens; 2004

Q: Iraq failed to qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, but you made up for it in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. What do you think? A: We rotated more than fifty players during the World Cup qualifiers. I played for the entire tournament, but with so many changes, it was impossible for us to understand each other and develop a style of play. We were going through a difficult time, even though I still believe that we were better than all the other Arab teams from Asia. Things would have been different if we incorporated younger players and participated in more training camps and competitive friendlies. With the right changes, we can qualify to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

Iraq has only qualified once to the FIFA World Cup; the 1986 tournament held in Mexico.

Qualifying to the 2004 Olympics was a challenge. We were drawn into a group with difficult teams: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. But beating teams from the Gulf is our specialty, and we managed to make it through.

Iraq’s fourth place finish at the Olympics is still the best showing for an Arabic speaking country.

Our success during the summer games was a tribute to our people in Iraq, who were living through difficult times. It was also a tribute to the entire Arabic speaking world, who showed us tremendous support. We played excellent, and utilized any lucky breaks to the fullest. The hard work of the players and the training staff paid off.

Watch Emad’s acrobatic goal against Australia in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece:

My goal against Australia in was the best goal of my life, especially since it took Iraq to the semi finals. It is a goal that is going to hold its place in the history books of Iraqi football. I just saw the ball falling from the sky, and I knew what to do.