When we met up with Radhi Shneishel in 2004, he was nearing the end of an illustrious career that took him to stadiums from Baghdad to Doha. He is an iron man, boasting a career that saw Radhi play top level football for more than twenty five years. He has a towering career to boot, filled with modesty and strength, both keys to making him one of the most memorable and widely respected captains of the national team.
For Radhi Shneishel, playing football was not enough. Since this interview, he worked hard to feature as a central figure in the coaching set up in Iraqi football. His knowledge of the game and leadership skills quickly made him one of the most successful coaches in the game. He is the only coach to take the three biggest teams Al Zawraa, Al Quwa Al Jawiya, and Al Talaba to the finals of the league competition, winning the league with the Nawares in 2011. Shneishel has also coached both the national and Olympic teams.
There is no exaggeration in saying that Radhi Shneishel is a fundamental cornerstone in shaping modern football in Iraq.
As a child, I played football all the time to the point that it dragged me away from school. At the time, I was playing on the streets because of my pure love for the game. I come from a poor background in the Al Thawra City in Baghdad. I tell you this because I am not ashamed of who I am, and because Al Thawra was home to the most competitive neighborhood teams, where so many of Iraq’s best players come from. In fact, I still go back to play with the same modest neighborhood teams that I used to play with when I was a youngster.
The ClubQ: It wasn’t too long after the streets, that you started playing top flight football; what do you remember from your first game? A: My first game as a senior player was in 1983 with Al Zawraa. It was against Al Jaish, in the Al Shaab Stadium. The atmosphere was charged. It was the Iraq – Iran war, and football was one of the few ways people could release stress. I could feel the vibrations from the fans in the pitch beneath my feet. I was dizzy and disoriented. For me, it was the first time to play under flood lights. I was always losing sight of the ball. I played for sixty minutes but never got a chance to make much of an impact. Q: What is the difference between playing in the Iraqi and Qatari leagues? A: There are many fundamental differences. In Iraq, football has a place deep in the souls of people. Football enjoys a tremendous history in Iraq, and there is so much talent in Iraq. Here in Qatar, the money, the stadiums, and coaches are there, but there are no fans. The Gulf region started building football only twenty years ago. Whereas in Iraq, I remember seeing old black and white pictures of fans at the Al Kashafa stadium in the 1940s going to watch football in suits and ties.
Nonetheless, I think that Qatari football is benefitting from attracting prominent European based players as they reach the final years of their career. It is similar to the Japanese and American experiences which attracted stellar names like Pele and Beckenbauer. Despite the ambition shown by the Qatari Football Association, and the presence of international names, the fans still refuse to come to stadiums.
Playing for Iraq
Q: When did you start playing for Iraq in international competitions? A: My first real experience playing international football came during the Asian U-19 Championships in Doha in 1988. I was part of a young team that would from the National team of the nineties. We actually won the tournament after beating Syria in the Final from a penalty shootout. I scored from the spot that day. It was a great honor. This tournament signaled the end of the golden era of the Eighties, and ushered a new generation.Q: Up next for you was the 1989 FIFA U-20 World Cup, which was held in Saud Arabia. Many fans remember that as one of the greatest outings by an Iraqi team at an international tournament. What do you remember? A: I remember that our first game was against Norway and we managed to defeat them 1-0. We also managed to dispose of the Spaniards by a score of 2-0 before beating Argentina 1-0, in a game where we were short one man for most of the match. In the second round, we lost to one of the weakest teams in the tournament, the United States by a score of 2-1, and the fact that it was against the Americans made the disappointment even greater. I vividly remember that one of they scored one of their goals from a free kick. We were overconfident and underestimated our opponent, especially after performing so well in the first round.
I will never forget that game nor will I ever forget our 3-2 loss to North Korea in the final qualifying rounds for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, which was to be held in the United States. We were leading 2-0, and began to relax after we thought we had a big enough lead. We relaxed after the big lead, and the red card that Saad Abdul Hamid received had a big negative effect on us. We were exhausted mentally and physically from the humidity, and then the sending off of one of our players, Saad Abdul Hamid, had a tremendous impact on us. In the end, it was the substitution of Naeem Saddam which proved to be our downfall. Taking out a defensive midfielder, when you are trying to defend a lead was a bad idea. In the end we lost 3-2, effectively knocking us out of making it to the World Cup.Q: Despite the disappointing exit from the World Cup, you bounced back with a good display in the 1996 Asian Cup held in the United Arab Emirates, eventually losing to the hosts. Why did that happen? A: First of all, we had only played games in two years leading up to the tournament, both were friendlies in Bulgaria. Despite that, and despite being in a tough group with Saudia Arabia, Thailand, and Iran, our coaches helped us in reach the round of eight, which was a good result in its own right.
Our subsequent loss to the United Arab Emirates was really tough for the players, knowing that a win over the UAE would have catapulted us directly into the Final, because Kuwait at the time refused to play against Iraq, and would have withdrawn in the Semifinal.
Our team played well against the UAE. We missed a penalty shot, and that enabled the UAE to score a golden goal from a free kick in extra time, and put us out of the tournament.
We shouldn’t have committed that foul outside the penalty area, especially since we knew that referee Jamal Ghandour was biased for the home crowd. The goalkeeper also made a mistake in that play, and they scored. You should never give a referee the opportunity to make a call against you when playing against the home crowd.
Beyond the PitchQ: You lived and played under Uday’s leadership of the Iraqi Olympic Committee. How was that? A: All the world knows about what used to happen to us. Iraqi football suffered tremendously from Uday’s threats and punishments, and the overall atmosphere of mistrust and dishonesty that he created in the Football Association. It was impossible to succeed.
Why does someone need to threaten me so I can play well? My motivation comes from my desire to serve and represent my country, and those are greater than any threats. We could not expect excellent results under those notorious conditions. Despite them, we remained strong and played for the people.
Q: What if you were in charge of Iraqi football; what would you want to see get done? A: In Iraq, the right person was never in the right position. I would first choose the right people to manage the Football Association. They would have to be honest, and put public interest above their own private benefit. We have endured twenty years of wars, and that has affected our international standing. Despite that, we are still ranked higher than all of the Gulf. We need to emphasize on building for the long term as opposed to being obsessed with producing immediate results. That takes a lot of studying, just like they have done in Saudi Arabia and Japan. We have what it takes to advance.Q: What do you say to younger players who are making a name for themselves playing for their club or country? A: I would advise them on not letting fame get to their heads. I would tell them to have aspirations that are not only material or about money. I came from a poor background. I suffered a lot and it took a lot of patience and hard work for me to be successful in my career. You need to constantly work to improve yourself. Iraqi fans don’t have any mercy for bad players. Nothing comes easy. Q: Who would you choose as Iraq’s dream team if you could select any players from any generation? A: That is a difficult question, but I would use a 4-4-2 formation. In goaltending I would choose Raad Hamoodi. In defence, I would select Adnan Dirjal, Younis Azeez, Kareem Allawi, and Adil Khdhayer. In Midfield, I would choose Hadi Ahmed, Basil Gorgis, Saad Qais, and Habib Jaafar. And then I would choose Ahmed Radhi and Falah Hassan as my forwards. We have had so many great players, that I forgot to mention players like Laith Hussein and Hussain Saeed and others. Q: Beyond the pitch, what do you want for Iraq? A: Every Iraqi wishes that our country stabilizes and prospers. Our people have gone through a lot of misery and hardship. I wish for an Iraq that represents and tolerates all Iraqis from every culture and every religion.