Hammadi Ahmed

Thursday, October 5, 2017
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After a stunning 2016 AFC Cup campaign saw Hammadi Ahmed finish as MVP and Top Scorer, the Air Force Club forward is aiming for continental glory once again as the defending champions prepare to take to the final for the second successive year.

After a stunning 2016 AFC Cup campaign saw Hammadi Ahmed finish as MVP and Top Scorer, the Air Force Club forward is aiming for continental glory once again as the defending champions prepare to take to the final for the second successive year.

It is not easy being your team's goalscoring talisman. But for Hammadi Ahmed, it is a challenge to relish. The 28-year-old Iraqi striker has spent seven years at defending AFC Cup champions. When Ahmed arrived at the club in 2010 as a young talent, Air Force had not won any silverware for five years. Seven years on, Ahmed can look back to almost 100 goals and a period of significant success for him and the team.

Ahmed's most memorable campaign came in 2016-17, when he showed his knack for scoring crucial goals in big matches. His tally of 16 in Air Force Club's triumphant run to the AFC Cup title included the lone goal in the final against JSW Bengaluru. Ahmed then went on to score both goals in the 2-1 win over Al Hedood, which saw them crowned as Iraqi champions for the first time since 2005. It was this form which earned him a nomination for the AFC Player of the Year award.

Air Force Club are now back in the AFC Cup final this year after seeing off Syria's Al Wahda in the West Asia Zonal final and although he hasn't scored as much as he would like during this campaign, Ahmed remains confident in his abilities.

"My fans expect me to score every game. I am to blame for that; I got them used to that,” said Ahmed after his side’s dramatic 1-0 victory over Syria’s Al Wahda in the second leg of the AFC Cup West Asia Zonal final saw them advance to a second successive final as a 2-2 aggregate score saw them through on away goals.

“But what's important today is someone scores. What matters is that we have reached the final. Now that we have done that, hopefully I can score the winner in the final."

The last six months have been a time of ups and downs for Ahmed, with an injury in April threatening to curtail his season. However, he recovered in time to lead Air Force Club to the Iraqi league title. On the continental front, the forward was not able to repeat the kind of goalscoring form that he displayed in 2016, coming up with only two goals so far. Nonetheless, the timing of those goals showed why Ahmed is so important to this Air Force Club side.

"I know I haven't been the same this season,” admitted Ahmed. “The injury affected me and yet I was able to score two crucial goals - against Al Hidd in the group stage and then against Al Wahda in the first leg of the Zonal final."

For all of his success at the Baghdad club, Ahmed has his time at local club Samarra to thank for bringing him into nationwide prominence. Starting off as a teenager, he scored 15 goals in two seasons before the giants came calling. It was an offer he couldn't refuse.

Ahmed's move to Air Force Club raised his profile and, seven years later, he is a club legend at one of Iraqi football's most historic institutions. The love story between club and player has also survived a number of offers from abroad.

"To be honest, I get offers from abroad every year. In the second year with Air Force Club, I got an offer from the Ukrainian club Metalist Kharkiv," said Ahmed.

"I rejected it as I preferred to stay here. I got offers from all over the Gulf region, Jordan and also Japan. Every single occasion, I decided to stay here. I was happy here and I had a good contract. I am the main man here and the fans here love me. Everyone here respects me."

Such loyalty to the club has made Ahmed a beloved icon for the fans of Air Force Club, who call him the 'Villa of the Falcons' due to his resemblance to the World Cup winning Spanish striker. However, unlike the former Valencia and Barcelona frontman, Ahmed has not enjoyed similar success with his national team. Unfortunately for him, his international career coincided with a lean phase for the Iraq, which has been unable to match the heights of the mid-2000s when the Lions of Mesopotamia finished fourth at the 2004 Olympics and went on to win the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.

Yet, Ahmed does have some great memories to look back at when he recalls his stint with the national team, during which he scored six goals.

"After moving to Air Force Club, I earned my first national team call-up," he reflected. "My first goal for Iraq is one of the most memorable goals of my career."

The goal in question was an 86th-minute winner against Jordan that saved the Iraqis from elimination in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Ahmed's fierce left-footed strike from the edge of the box flew past Jordan keeper Amer Shafi and nestled in the top corner, sparking a shirt-ripping celebration from the overjoyed striker.

Ahmed was also involved in Iraq's 2013 Gulf Cup campaign, where he scored twice to help the side to a runners-up finish behind the United Arab Emirates. This was followed by the disappointment of missing out on Iraq's 2015 Asian Cup squad. Despite making a return to the national team for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Ahmed subsequently announced his retirement from international football in June of this year after Iraq failed to qualify for the finals.

Although he wasn't able to repeat his club heroics at international level, Hammadi remains hopeful when asked about the future of Iraqi football.

"Iraq is filled with lots of talent. We have had huge stars who wrote their names into history, who starred not just in Iraq but also earned a name abroad. We have a population that loves football. It's the major sport in the country. We have done great work, especially with our youth teams who have achieved great results recently.

“Similarly, I have great hope for our senior national team, who have started to regain form and have begun winning games again. I expect them to excel in the future as new blood comes in and every player looks to show his worth at the international level."

For now, Ahmed's focus shifts to Air Force Club and the task at hand - retaining the AFC Cup title. It has not been as easy this year to reach the final, compared to the dominant form the Falcons showed in 2016.

"Last year, we became the first Iraqi side to win this tournament. I am proud of this achievement, as a player and especially as the captain of the team," said Ahmad.

"We were a good side last year, stable and harmonious. We didn't make any wholesale changes. Every player gelled well and we were prepared to go all the way."

"This season, we haven't had much time to prepare before the Zonal final. We just had a ten-day camp prior to the Al Wahda match. After we lost the first leg, I promised that we would go through. Thank God, we have delivered on that promise."

Before signing off, Ahmed made a final remark on the individual records that was a highlight of his 2016 season.

"Even though the team achievements are our topmost priority, I think the individual records also help motivate us. I was able to become the AFC Cup top scorer, break various records and be named as the tournament MVP. I think this is a good thing; these things really push us and give us confidence and hopefully, we can retain the title. This is our objective."