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WALKING THROUGH TEHRAN’S WESTERN DISTRICT OF EKTABAN, one can do little to avoid the magnificent sight of the Azadi Stadium, the biggest sports structure in Iran. Its name means “freedom” in Persian, but before the end of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, it was known as Aryamehr, literally “the light of the Aryans”.

The Azadi is currently able to hold just over 78,000 spectators, but its capacity was way bigger back in the day, when the number of bystanders used to top 100,000. It was in front of a crowd of these very proportions that on 28 April 1977, Iraq faced Iran in the AFC Youth Championship final. Not without surprise, that day turned out to be one of the highest peaks in the history of Iraqi football, as the white and green under-19 team were able to defeat their highly rated Iranian hosts.

Among those boys celebrating victory and raising the cup to the sky, there was one who would never have imagined that his best contribution to football in his country would come 16 years after that day. His name was Adnan Kadhim, and that triumph granted he and his teammates entry to the FIFA World Youth Championship to be held later that year in Tunisia. Unfortunately, their fairytale came to a bitter end, as Iraq collected two defeats out of three matches in the first phase of the tournament, succumbing to the USSR and Paraguay.

The transient glory of 1977 remained the only one experienced by Adnan Kadhim in his career, as he never made it to Iraqi football’s hall of fame, nor to the senior national team. However, his brother Ali was able to bring prestige to the family, playing at Al-Zawra’a from 1968 to 1982, setting a record for goals scored for the national team, which only Hussein Saeed was able to break, and establishing himself as one of the best strikers in the country’s history.

There’s a common saying in Iraq: “Two-thirds of a boy is his uncle.” It must, then, be no surprise that such a family of footballers gave birth to a kid with all the qualities to overcome his predecessors and turn into the best Iraqi player of all time. Son of Adnan Kadhim, Ali Adnan Kadhim Nassir Al-Tameemi – simply known as Ali Adnan – came out to see the neon lights of the Al-Nu’man hospital delivery room in Baghdad on 19 December 1993.

Life wasn’t easy in the capital back then. Right from the start of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, major economic sanctions had been enforced over Iraq by the UN Security Council, resulting in hyperinflation, widespread poverty and malnutrition. Just as the country was starting to laboriously drag itself out of this situation, little Ali Adnan fell in love with a ball.

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Still young, he was enrolled in the prestigious Ammo Baba Football School, named after the historic local player Emmanuel Baba Dawud, where the dirt floor of a shabby football ground became the theatre of his first marauding runs, the ball already glued to his left foot.

That school was close, both ideally and geographically, to the next stage of his life, represented by the Al-Shaab Stadium where Ali Adnan soon ended up. The stadium is home to his uncle’s former team, Al-Zawra’a, whose ranks the starlet joined at under-17 level. At this point, he just had to be patient and keep working; time would do the rest. 

Sure enough, after a brief spell at Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, he came to the end of his rise to the top of Iraqi football, becoming a player of Baghdad – now known as Amanat Baghdad – in 2010, where he finally became a regular with the seniors. Playing for the Lions of the Capital, it didn’t take too much for Adnan to convince the coach to rely on him full-time on the left flank, relegating to the bench the experienced full-back Bassim Abbas. 

Already an ideal mix of power, height and speed, his smart left foot and almost perfect physique allowed Adnan to put together a series of outstanding performances for Baghdad, scoring seven goals and making everybody rub their eyes in the process. It was now time to take over the world.

His biggest chance to grab the spotlight on the international stage finally came in the summer of 2013, when Adnan was called up to take part in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup held in Turkey. While the eyes of the world were pointed at Paul Pogba, Paco Alcácer and Harry Kane, the Iraqi underdogs quickly drew the attention of the enthusiasts.

Their coach, Hakeem Shaker Al-Azzawi, was a maverick. The first and only Iraqi coach to manage three teams at the same time – Iraq’s senior, Olympic and youth teams – he decided to fully concentrate on the youngsters, as he was aware of the unprecedented breed of talents in his hands. The goal-machine Farhan Shakor Tawfeeq, the set-pieces specialist Ali Faez Atiyah, the charismatic shot-stopper Mohammed Hassan Hameed Farhan and of course Ali Adnan, among others, made it for one of the strongest youth national teams Iraq had ever had. 

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With such players, the offensive mentality used by Hakeem Shaker to forge his team paid off in the end, as Iraq only surrendered to Uruguay in the semi-final, after a thrilling penalty shoot-out.

While Adnan established himself as one of the best left full-backs at the tournament, the most defining moment for him came in the first match against England. In the Akdeniz University Stadium of Antalya, England, despite some difficulties, had reached the comforting score of 2-0 thanks to Conor Coady and Luke Williams, before being scared by Ali Faez’s goal on 75 minutes. The Englishmen seemed in control until stoppage time, but couldn’t foresee that Ali Adnan, after catching the sight of European scouts since the first minute, wanted to sprain their wrists by making them write so much in their notepads.

Just as the minute hand was making its 93rd round, a long ball was desperately thrown from the Iraqi midfield towards the byline on the left flank. Here, with enviable timing, Adnan rushed on it and, by the time Jon Flanagan had understood what to do, the Iraqi had already decided to make fun of him going right, left, and then right again, before firing the ball past the English goalkeeper with his right foot which, in theory, should have been the weak one. A few seconds later, the referee blew the final whistle to decree the draw.

As England coach Peter Taylor tried to figure out how was it possible not to win against a bunch of players nobody had ever heard of, the boys in green were getting confident and, with the aid of Ali Adnan’s pace and technique, finished top of their group, making it to the round of 16 where they defeated Paraguay. In the quarter-finals, the Lions of Mesopotamia overcame South Korea, before facing Uruguay.

By the semi-final, the world was already informed about the potential concealed in Ali Adnan’s left boot, but for the few who were still not fully convinced, the match against La Celeste turned out to be a revelation, as the 19-year-old from Baghdad netted an outrageous free-kick from an impossible angle. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to reach the final, but it granted Adnan a place among the most interesting prospects of Asian football.

It wasn’t long before his name started to be linked to virtually every attack-minded team in Europe, including Galatasaray, Napoli, Arsenal and Roma. Reality, as it often is, was much more modest for him, as he agreed a five-year contract with Çaykur Rizespor in Turkey. Despite the low-profile transfer, it was enough for him to showcase his skills in the Süper Lig and win him a transfer to Serie A side Udinese in the summer of 2015.

After his unbelievable free-kick against Uruguay, some of those who were watching the match might have been struck by the seriousness with which Adnan greeted his teammates who just wanted to hug him. Instead, he ran in front his coach, stomped his right foot to the ground and saluted him like a private would do his marshal.

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That curious way of celebrating a goal, together with the viral pictures of Ali Adnan wearing a bulletproof vest and hanging around with Iraqi soldiers, was enough for newspapers to speculate on him retiring from football to fight for his country. “The Iraqi full-back watched closely by Roma decided to fight jihadists.” Headlines like this started to pop up, and Ali Adnan became more famous as “that Arab who took off his boots to take up a rifle” than as “that gifted Iraqi defender”, in the umpteenth reminder of Westerners’ tendency to judge books by their covers.

It may well be, like some say, that the world is shaped like a football, but there are episodes in the history of this planet which have nothing to do with sport. One of these was happening by the time Ali Adnan signed his contract with Çaykur Rizespor, when the Iraqi government was involved in a harsh war in the northern region of Anbar.

Given the fact that Syria had been facing a civil war since 2011, the Iraqi border was not an easy one to control, with lots of Syrian jihadists crossing it every day to enhance their relations with their Iraqi counterparts. It was in April 2013 that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Iraqi militants, announced the fusion with Syria’s Al-Nusra Front, with the goal of creating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) between northern Iraq and western Syria. Despite the governmental efforts in the region, the jihadist troops launched a massive attack in the summer of 2014, taking the important cities of Samarra, Mosul, Tikrit and being halted 90 kilometres outside Baghdad.

There’s another proverb people like to cite in Iraq: “A wet man never fears the rain.” Ali Adnan, having witnessed the state of Baghdad after the UN sanctions of the 1990s, wasn’t concerned about the war looming afar, which, sure enough, couldn’t prevent him from paying a visit to his city.

In the aforementioned photos, taken in June 2014, he looks more serious than the soldiers next to him, who, in turn, are always smiling. That’s because the company of a football star was for them a moment of relief amid months of sandstorms, mines, gunshots and black flags. For Ali Adnan, however, it was just a way to come to terms with reality, with his country being torn apart by war. A country he didn’t want to hear about on television, but that he could defend in no way other than by using his public image to bring that war to the eyes of the world, even if only through sport newspapers.

Despite public conjecture, he didn’t take any extreme decision like enrolling in the army and, by the end of June, was already back in Turkey to train for the new season, proving that, after all, he’s just a footballer. Or, if you prefer, a wet man who, as such, never fears the rain 

By Franco Ficetola