Kuala Lumpur: The Asian football family woke up on Sunday to the sad news of the passing away of Iraqi football legend Ahmed Radhi at the age of 56 after a short battle with COVID-19.
With a goal scoring record few strikers anywhere in Asia can match, Ahmed Radhi has earned his place amongst the continent’s elite in this latest edition of the-AFC.com’s ‘Asian Icons’ series.
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Drought and Persistence
The early chapters of Radhi’s career were heavily intertwined with Ammo Baba; the late iconic coach is credited for discovering the striker’s talents and introducing him onto the big stage. At the young age of 17, Baba handed Radhi his full debut for Iraq in a friendly against Jordan.
At the start, things didn’t go according to plan for the youngster, who had to wait 20 months to break his international duck against the UAE in what was his ninth cap for the Lions of Mesopotamia. But Baba’s continued faith in his protégé proved well-placed as Radhi went on to become one of the nation’s best goal scorers of all time.
In the first two years of his international career, Radhi became an important member of the national team seeking qualification to the Olympics for the second time, having impressed in the Moscow 1980 edition. Iraq joined Qatar and Saudi Arabia in qualification from Asia, but to Radhi’s frustration, the 20-year-old was left out of the final squad for Los Angeles 1984, with Baba criticising the starlet for a perceived lack of effort during training.
This Olympic omission would prove to be a turning point in Radhi’s career, as he returned stronger in 1985, bagging 12 international goals in that calendar year, a joint personal-best record for him. The highlight of the year for Radhi was a first international hat-trick, against Lebanon in a 1986 FIFA World Cup qualifier.
Having watched their neighbours Kuwait represent the continent in the 1982 FIFA World Cup, the Iraqis were full of desire to follow suit four years later. Hampered by the war at home, Radhi and co had to play their home matches in Saudi Arabia, but that did not deter them from navigating past the likes of Qatar, Jordan and the UAE to set up a final showdown against Syria for a place in Mexico 1986.
Radhi did not score, but most importantly for the Lions of Mesopotamia, they edged Syria 3-1 on aggregate to book their place amongst the world’s elites for the first time in their history.
June 4, 1986. Iraq made their FIFA World Cup bow in front of 24,000 fans in the Mexican city of Toluca and millions more back at home beaming with pride to the sound of their national anthem playing as they prepared to face Paraguay.
By the time half-time approached, Iraq were a goal behind. Radhi showed his trademark athleticism to rise highest at the far post and head home Ali Shihab’s corner. Celebrations, however, were cut short as the referee had blown the whistle before the ball had met Radhi’s head.
Radhi was made to wait, but his moment finally arrived 57 minutes into the second group match against Belgium. Outsmarting his marker, the Iraqi striker latched onto Natiq Hashim’s pass and rifled into the far corner from the edge of the box, beating Iconic Belgian goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff to enter the history books as scorer of Iraq’s first – and to date only- goal at the FIFA World Cup Finals.
Two years on from that moment of glory in Mexico, Radhi was reaching new heights for club and country. In March 1988, the Lions of Mesopotamia lifted the Gulf Cup trophy in Riyadh, with Radhi winning the top scorer award.
Six months later, Radhi’s misery of Los Angeles 1984 gave way to joy in Korea Republic as Iraq qualified to the 1988 Olympics. Radhi scored two goals in Seoul 88 as Iraq defeated Guatemala 3-0 and drew with Zambia 2-2, before losing to Italy 2-0.
In club colours, Radhi’s time had come after he had swapped his childhood club Al Zawraa for new powerhouse Al Rasheed. Alongside fellow legend Adnan Dirjal, Radhi led the Baghdad-based club to reaching the 1988-89 Asian Club Championship final, but despite his goal in the 3-2 first-leg win over Al Sadd in Baghdad, it was the finest of margins that handed the trophy to the Qataris who won 1-0 in Doha to become Asian champions on account of away goals.
A memorable 1988 saw Radhi equal his record for international goals in a calendar year with 12 strikes for Iraq, earning him the title of the 1988 Asian Player of the Year, becoming the first – and to date only – Iraqi player to receive the prestigious award.
After a successful four-year spell at Qatar’s Al Wakrah, Radhi returned home to wind down his career with Al Zawraa, where it all started. In 1997, he wore the Iraq jersey for the last time in a World Cup qualifier against Pakistan, and two years later he hung his boots, closing the curtains on a 17-year illustrious career that made him a real Asian icon.
A brief coaching career saw him manage Al Shorta, Al Zawraa and Air Force Club in addition to Iraq U-19s, he also served as a president of Al Zawraa club and as a member of the Iraqi Parliament.
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