Words by Tom Danicek
Back in 2015, in the immediate aftermath of the last Asian Cup, we rolled out a series called Asia’s Rising Stars to recognize those whose stocks had risen dramatically over the tournament. Among those featured were the 2018 World Cup comet Morteza Pouraliganji, the reigning Asian Footballer of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan and the protagonist of the latest high-profile Asian move to English Premier League, Yoshinori Muto. Other than that, it was a mixed bag: some have decidedly regressed (Kim Jin-su, Wang Dalei), some have more or less stagnated to re-appear at this tournament as their country’s leaders (Ali Mabkhout, Abdallah Jaber), while Massimo Luongo has somehow grown ever increasingly more invisible to Australian NT managers.
Not learning any lessons whatsoever, we are now coming with a fresh batch of up-and-coming youngsters. Some well recognized, some largely flowing under the radar, while all being 25 years old or younger. At the same time, while it would be tempting to profile, say, the 18-year-old Iraqi sensation Mohanad Ali, we’d rather check back with him in four years’ time when it arguably makes more sense to start gauging his potential (that said, he absolutely does seem like a gem, as demonstrated by the concrete interest shown in him by Slavia Prague). Instead, we kick-off with another Iraqi…
Safaa Hadi – 20 years old – CDM – Al-Zawraa (IRQ)
We’ve been here before, one would be tempted to say, looking at another promising Iraqi central midfielder.
In 2015, the Asian football world was obsessed with Yaser Kasim. And when I say obsessed, I genuinely mean obsessed. His magical solo run vs Jordan was being replayed on repeat; his passing range compared to that of Andrea Pirlo. At one point in 2016, it seemed to be a given that Kasim was moving to Swansea City to become the first Iraqi in the English Premier League.
Yet now, only three years removed from the lofty heights of Kasim’s career, a third-division English outfit just ended his contract by mutual consent earlier this month, restricting itself to a brief statement without any thanks or statistics. At 27, Kasim might as well be done internationally, and so we turn to another prospect, vying to become the mainstay Qusay Munir once represented in the heart of a flourishing Iraqi side.
While there’s arguably nothing like an overly careful approach to assessing 20-year-old players, in Asia as much as anywhere else on the planet, it’s worth beginning this profile by pinpointing the many differences between Safaa Hadi of 2019 and Yaser Kasim of 2015, and cautiously foreseeing a shinier future for the former.
For one, Kasim has been an expat for as long as we can remember, since the age of 6, and that in itself is a handicap for any Iraqi trying to cut it internationally. The broader issue was briefly summarized here and elaborated on here, while Kasim’s rather unique and hardly ever explicable issues have been well documented by Hassanin Mubarak, too; here and here, for example. Safaa Hadi, meanwhile, is made of a distinctly different dough. He hails from the footballing hotbed of Sadr City, Baghdad, which has recently bred the 2016 Olympics hero Alaa Mhawi and the tricky attacking midfielder Bashar Resan, later graduating from the prestigious Ammo Baba Football School and eventually deciding to opt for one of the youth sides run by the Football Association instead of going down the more conventional club route, leading him to his current starting role for domestic giants Al-Zawraa.
Tied to the first point is a question of international pedigree. As someone who’s been groomed right under the noses of the Iraqi FA, Safaa Hadi is now guaranteed to be cherished and, if needed, favoured by the people in power. Accordingly, he has represented his country at both the U-19 (2016) and U-23 (2018) Asian Cup, and so his ascension to the senior national team has been perfectly linear. Now compare that to Kasim, whose mere two starts at the disastrous 2014 Gulf Cup were his only international experience garnered before his 2015 breakthrough.
Finally, the matter of the respective playing styles. Compare to the rather ponderous if not slow-ish ball distributor Yaser Kasim who naturally demands to be the centre of his side’s build-up, Safaa Hadi makes for more of a dynamic force that announces itself to the audience mostly only when it is required. Popping up on either side or in the middle, Safaa sweeps up, quickly hands the ball over, only rarely (but usually with great success) does a little dribble, and that’s about it. Highly efficient at what he’s asked to do as the deepest-lying midfielder, the 20-year-old won’t necessarily dictate the play for you but will reliably aid the circulation of the ball when called upon.
Of course, Kasim’s decline can hardly be attributed to his playing style, but even at his best, it was obvious the midfield general is not one for a high-tempo game, prone to be harassed and man marked out of the match. And as he had visibly gained weight amidst his troubles off the pitch, Kasim became an even easier target. Safaa Hadi, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as though he would suffer under any circumstances. He already competes very well despite not being particularly muscular; most of the time staying on his feet and using his body cleverly to shove opponents aside without fouling. And if the situation begs for a sliding tackle, Safaa duly delivers it, typically in a style John Stones has become known for lately, following in the footsteps of Philipp Lahm and other smart defenders.
On balance, Safaa Hadi is that kind of a sneaky player who robs you of the ball in the blink of an eye, which goes well with his impish curly hairstyle and the fact he got away with two fairly obvious handball decisions for a penalty against Iran at this Asian Cup.
In contrast to Kasim, who was hyped extensively on the back of one solid tournament, Safaa Hadi is most probably in for a career marked by constant underappreciation. As influential as he is, he’s rather unassuming in the mould of Nemanja Matić, as our friend and Ahdaaf co-founder Wael Jabir once aptly remarked, and that parallel holds with regards to how Safaa uses his stronger left foot, too. Simple passing coupled with an occasional rapid swing and unexpected long through ball; with the right partner beside him, Safaa has all the tools to underpin a winning side, adding to its tenacity as well as creativity, the same way Matić has in the past. Now it’s just about identifying that tempo-controller to complement him…