Illustration by Federico Manasse
Iraq’s national football team, the Lions of Mesopotamia, have scored just one World Cup goal in their entire history. It was at Mexico 86, the only time they’ve qualified for world football’s quadrennial party, and it was scored by Ahmed Radhi, the player who must surely go down as the nation’s best ever footballer.
He may not be Iraq’s top scorer – that honour goes to Hussein Saeed with his 78 strikes – but Radhi and his second-best 62 goals are still revered in the Middle Eastern nation. Part of the reason for this is that he spent all but four of the 17 years of his club career in the Iraqi league, representing Al-Zawra’a and Al-Rasheed, winning three league titles with the former and two with the latter, twice topping the scoring charts.
It wasn’t for a lack of offers that Radhi avoided a move away for so long, until he eventually moved to the Qatari league at the age of 29, as he was offered a lucrative move to Uruguayan side Nacional after his exploits at the 1986 World Cup. Not only had he scored once in Mexico, receiving the ball in the penalty area and lashing across goal to grab a consolation in a 2-1 defeat against Belgium, but he also scored a header in the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay, only for the goal to be ruled out as the referee had decided to blow the half-time whistle as Iraq delivered a corner kick into the box.
The move to South America never came to fruition and Radhi stayed at Al-Rasheed, the club founded just three years previously by Uday Hussein, son of Saddam. While Radhi was considered a favourite of the sadistic sports chief, he too was subjected to his notorious punishments on occasion, once being ordered to kick a concrete wall for 15 hours.
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On the whole, however, his time at Al-Rasheed was positive and it was there that he enjoyed the greatest year of his career, winning the 1988 Asian Footballer of the Year prize as the first and only player from the country to ever receive that honour. It was well-deserved, as Radhi had been a comic book hero of a footballer that year, helping Al-Rasheed to a league and cup double and to the final of the 1988/89 Asian Club Championship.
At international level, he’d scored in the penalty shoot-out as Iraq defeated Syria in the final of the Arab Nations Cup, while he had also taken part in the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea, finding the back of the net in a 2-2 draw with Zambia and a 3-0 win over Guatemala, goals which made the performance a respectable one for the Lions of Mesopotamia, even if Italy pipped them into the knockout rounds by one point.
Radhi’s legacy is not just that of a great goalscorer, as talented as he was. Having played 121 times for his country, captaining the team on a number of occasions, his voice holds a lot of weight in the country, and he collaborated with the United States to try to promote football as a unifying force in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The aim was to get an XI on the field in time for the 2004 Olympic Games, and they succeeded, with the team going on to stun the world in Athens and heartwarmingly secure Iraq’s best-ever Olympic finish, missing out on a place on the podium by one Alberto Gilardino goal in the bronze medal match against an Andrea Pirlo-captained Italy. “The Olympics give us a chance to enter the new world,” one fan told USA Today at the time, summing up the mood back home.
Ahmed Radhi, then, had scored Iraq’s only ever World Cup goal, while he’d also played a part from behind the scenes, even if it was a small one, in their best-ever Olympics finish. When it comes to Iraqi football, it will take something special for any player to ever again have as large an impact