Razzaq Farhan is a soft spoken clinical striker that enjoys a religious following at Al Quwa Al Jawiya.
Haider Mahmoud is a stocky fierce defender with a larger than life personality, and a hero at Al Zawraa.
Both players are legends in their respective clubs, two sides that thrive on beating each other. Both have also worn the captain’s armband for Iraq, and share an unmistakable love for the game.
They have made tremendous sacrifices for the country and club, and when we caught up with them, were living together as roommates, in Doha, both playing for no-name Qatari side Al-Shamal.
In 2004, over chai and klaycha, we spoke to them at length about their experiences, and were taken on a journey through a critical time for football in Iraq.
I also had an older brother who played for Al Talaba and then moved to Al Quwa Al Jawiya. His advice kept me on the right track. I began playing organized football with the Al Rasheed (presently named Al Karkh) schoolboys side in 1985. I then played for two years with the youth side of the Al Tijara club. Throughout all this time, I still continued to play with local teams in the various neighborhoods of Baghdad until I finally broke into to the senior side at Al Tijara.
Playing on the streets, in local teams, was highly competitive and allowed me to grow as a player. In the league, I started as a forwarded, finishing third on the scorer’s list one season, but I played as a defender once for the Olympic team, and have been in that position ever since. It was my experience on the streets that enabled me to be versatile and play in different roles.
I spent five years with Al Tijara, and both Adil Yousef and the legendary Amo Baba were key in refining my raw talent. They gave me the confidence I needed to move on to bigger clubs. I played for Al Tayaran, Al Jaish, and Al Naft, and eventually made it to Al Zawraa in 1994.
RAZZAQ: I loved playing on the streets because, there, you are able to do whatever you want. You can try bicycle kicks and try to always deke out your opponent, but that brand of football is very different from that which is played at the professional level. There are many players that have amazing skills on the streets but aren’t successful at the club level because they lack the fundamentals and the discipline.
I am from the southern province of Babil. I played for Babil FC for two seasons. Kadhum Imtashar, a former player, was part of the coaching setup at Babil, and was very effective in helping me refine my talents and gain the confidence that I needed.
Natiq Hashim, an Iraqi football legend turned coach, saw me in a game between Babil and his club Al Quwa Al Jawiya. He would become a key figure in my transfer from Babil to Baghdad, and his influence on my game would be critical.
I payed for Al Quway Al Jawiya for several years before moving to FC Bahrain in the Bahraini league in 1999. I then moved to Al Sharjah, a big club in the United Arab Emirates, where I had a great run for four years before ending up at Al Shamal in the Qatari League.
Despite their tremendous talent, Iraqi players are forced to play abroad in lesser quality leagues for mediocre salaries because of how bad the situation is for footballers at home. Al Shamal asked me to bring more Iraqi players after I was chosen as one of the top five players in the Qatari League. I was asked to try and convenience Ahmed Abdul Jabbar because people knew that we were roommates during our travels with the national team.
The club then inquired about the possibility of acquiring Razzaq, who was playing with Al Sharjah at that time. I didn’t think that he would move from his club. But, Razzaq was just sent out for loan to a smaller club: Al Khaleej in the Emarati league. So, it was the perfect time to try and convince Razzaq, and he agreed. Unfortunately, we have only played three games with all three of us in the lineup because of injury problems.Q: Three Iraqi players who happen to be friends playing for the same club. Do you find yourselves passing to each other more than you should? A: HAIDER: We are forced to. I am confident that my passes won’t be wasted if they are delivered to either Ahmed or Razzaq. The other players, perhaps with the exception of one Jordanian player, have mediocre skills. If the club only had locals in its lineup, then it wouldn’t be any good. We are the only ones that put extra effort in the game. That’s the reason why we are always injured.
Razzaq: I have received many offers from other clubs like Al Sadd and Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia. They are teams that can offer me better opportunities. At Al Shamal, I can score three goals a game and we would still lose. Remember, goals don’t come easy. But my destiny isn’t in my hands. The club owns me, and they really need me. I feel that my efforts here are wasted.
In Qatar, the league is better than Iraq in the sense that you have the opportunity to train in world class facilities. But in Iraq, there is more talent and players play with more pride and are more competitive. Losing a game in Iraq meant several sleepless nights. In some league matches, I remember that our fans would be so mad at us for losing that they would surround the exits of the stadium for hours.
In the Qatari League, whether the team wins or not, players pick up their cell phones, put a smile on their face, and walk out the door like nothing happened.
HAIDER: In the Qatari League, I sometimes feel like any other worker, where I just go out and do my job for a wage. In Iraq, it’s so much more.Q: Iraqi football is going through a rebuilding process, is it heading in the right direction? A: HAIDER: I don’t think so. Iraqi football is in complete chaos. Coaches pick players because they are friends with them. There are lots of people on the team and the administration that don’t deserve to be there. Despite his tremendous form, the FA didn’t choose Razzaq Farhan for the Asian Cup qualifiers in Malaysia and Bahrain. On top of that, there were no plane tickets given to me before our trip to Malaysia, and there was no fax sent to the Qatari League asking for permission to release us.
RAZZAQ: There is a lot of patronism and corruption in Iraqi football today.Q: At this juncture in Iraqi football, is a foreign coach, in this case German Bernd Stange, a good choice? A: RAZZAQ: During these difficult times, even if Stange was a good coach, we need an Iraqi coach. Iraqi players need special treatment from a coach who is close to them. Adnan Hamad is good for us and for Iraqi football. He knows the conditions that we are going through. Stange is not a good coach. Maybe he has done things that no other Iraqi could have done in terms of preparing training camps abroad, but as a coach he is no good.
He treats us as if we are playing under normal conditions and with all the necessary preparations. He needs to approach coaching the Iraqi side as if he is building from scratch, and needs to be more of a teacher than he is. We need an Iraqi coach now, and perhaps a foreign coach in the future could be beneficial. But he has to be a coach with sound technical skills and works with Iraqi football the way Iraqi football needs to be worked with.
HAIDER: He works only for himself. He offers nothing new. His plan is simply to play the long ball to the centre forward. He loves media attention. If he was any good, others would be seeking his services but that hasn’t happened. I have sat on the bench and witnessed players swearing at him coach. He has no control whatsoever. The coach is easily manipulated and goes by what he hears and sees in front of his eyes.
He refuses to look at players beyond his immediate view, which proves his unfamiliarity with Iraqi football. There are a lot of players that he has overlooked because he hasn’t seen them first hand. He has made no effort to look for talent. He has no depth in perception and refuses to familiarize himself with the huge selection of Iraq players available.
RAZZAQ: That’s true. I remember when I was playing with Sharjah in the Emirates, my friends and teammates were shocked at our choice of Stange. They recalled his loss to the Uzbeks by five unanswered goals when he was coaching Oman. Now, he is able to get international attention by exploiting the horrible conditions of Iraq.
HAIDER: Our media is easily influenced and can be pushed in any direction. I can give a cigarette to a reporter and he would make me out to be the best player in Iraq. They want money from me when they interview me. I’m the team captain. They should pay me!
RAZZAQ: In Iraq, everything works in the opposite direction of the rest of the world. Instead of the press pursuing a player for comments, a player needs to pursue the press to get his points of view across. They are always willing, however, to negatively brand a player. Even if a player is talented and puts all his effort into the game, the media doesn’t mind writing negatively about him for no reason whatsoever.Q: How do you guys play under all these terrible circumstances? A: RAZZAQ: If one takes a look at the terrible status of playing fields in Iraq, they would say that there is no way that anyone plays the game at a professional level in the country. But there are still great talents coming up and there are great efforts being put forth by youngsters throughout Iraq. It is amazing.
HAIDER: As if the bus trip from Baghdad to Amman wasn’t bad enough, we had to stop at the border and each player had to unload their bags in the cold so they can be searched, and that was at our own borders! There was no respect given to us. How easy would it have been to get us to go through the borders without any hassle? It would have taken one simple phone call. I remember once we were held up in Turkey for eighteen hours at the airport.
RAZZAQ: We’ve been through everything imaginable. Remember being held up in Syria when we were not allowed to enter Lebanon for the 1997 Arab Games?
HAIDER: And now things are even worse. I was supposed to show up at a press conference with Stange in Dubai, and I wasn’t given a visa. I played in a friendly match after the war in Iraq. The fans stole the cameras and phones from foreign journalists. There were knives and people shooting machine guns. There was betting everywhere. That needs to stop.
RAZZAQ: I have the same kind of problems with regards to my visa, and I remember I was even once apprehended by Jordanian authorities, when I was trying to enter into the country.
HAIDER: They were just jealous because we beat them in the West Asian Cup.
Despite the terror, there were still people that were brave enough to defend the players. I remember once we were ordered to go and get beaten on our legs. I was waiting in line and I could hear players screaming from about 75 meters away. I thought that we were gonna get killed, because they were screaming so loudly.
I could hear the sound of the whip. I was the last one to go in, and I found out that a good man in the Association was there to tell the person in charge of hitting us to hit against the bed, while the players screamed to give those standing outside who were close to Uday the impression that his orders were being followed. I even remember limping out of the room to make the ploy look more realistic.
Uday and his crew of thus used to also subject the players to run under the heat of the sun in the desert for long distances. There was even a red room in the Olympic Committee headquarters where everything was red; the walls and the lighting. After a while, a player would be psychologically tormented because everything would seem red, even the lizards on the wall. I was lucky for the most part in that I avoided many of these punishments. But other players weren’t that luck at all.Q: After all these years with the national team, is there one game that stands out for you? A: RAZZAQ: For me, it was a game that we eventually lost in a penalty shoot. It was the final of the 1999 Arab Cup against Jordan, when we came back to tie the score after being down by four goals. I scored a goal and created a penalty kick.
HAIDER: In that game, we got hit by stones from the fans after we scored we and ran to the King of Jordan and “saluted” him to mock the Jordanian players, who did that after every goal they scored. I was crushed. It was a dream for them to tie us, let alone beat us. I wasn’t happy even though we tied them and came from behind. I was sad. I remember when Abbas Raheem hit the post in extra time. It was so close.
HAIDER: Whatever Iraq needs is what soccer needs. If all the things that Razzaq mentioned were to happen, but Iraq remained unstable and insecure, then it’s pointless.