When Dhurgham Ismael arrived in the Turkish city of Antalya in June 2013 to compete in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, he could never have imagined that just two years later he would be returning there to take part in Turkish Super Lig matches. What was previously just a pipe dream for the promising left-back became a reality in August 2015, when he signed a long-term contract with Rizespor, following five years with Baghdad-based Al-Shorta, with whom he played in over 100 Iraqi Premier League matches.
Ismael spoke to FIFA.com about his memories of the 2013 U-20 World Cup and his aspirations of taking part in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Rio 2016, as well as his desire to play at the very highest level.
“The 2013 U-20 World Cup was an absolutely fantastic competition,” he said. “We performed really well throughout the tournament, thanks to a great effort from the players and backroom staff. We finished fourth and played against some top-quality teams – our fighting spirit enabled us to compete with them.”
Among the matches in which the 21-year-old participated at Turkey 2013, one in particular appears to have stuck in his mind. “I’ll never forget our first match against England. We were two goals down, but we dug deep and managed to snatch a late draw.”
After that intense opening game, the Iraqis secured two consecutive victories, against Egypt and Chile, results that helped them finish top of their group. Tight wins in the Round of 16 and quarter-finals saw them advance to the last four, where they lost to Uruguay on penalties after a 1-1 draw, a match that Ismael missed through injury.
“I was supposed to be involved, but I hurt my heel in training. It was difficult to sit on the bench and watch the team lose in that penalty shoot-out,” recalled the young Iraqi.
Asian Cup ascendance
Following that creditable campaign, Ismael gradually established himself in Iraq’s senior XI, eventually starring in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, where he played in six full matches as the Lions of Mesopotamia finished fourth.
And it was his sterling performances in that continental contest that eventually played a key role in his surprising return to Turkey. “Rizespor followed my progress during the U-20 World Cup and with the senior team, as well as in the Iraqi Premier League, after I was named Footballer of the Year. From all the interesting offers I received, I chose Turkey, as it’s a real gateway to Europe.”
When Ismael landed on Turkish soil, recollections of his adventures in 2013 gave him a certain sense of familiarity. “I always remember how much I enjoyed my time with the Iraqi team during the U-20 World Cup. Every time I travel with Rizespor to stadiums that we played in during that competition, memories come flooding back,” he explained.
The precocious defender is keen to emulate his international team-mate, Ali Adnan, who also made an initial foray abroad with Rizespor before signing for Udinese at the beginning of this current season, thereby becoming the first Iraqi to play in Serie A.
“It’s fantastic that there’s an Iraqi player in Italy now,” said Ismael proudly. “Personally, I hope to follow in the footsteps of my friend Ali, who I’m still in contact with. His success shows that Iraqi footballers have the necessary talent to play in the very top European leagues.”
This summer, Ismael and his young team-mates will attempt to showcase their skills at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio de Janeiro. Despite being unable to contribute to the side that recently finished third at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship, he is keen to play a part in Brazil.
“Our team has some very experienced guys, who play together regularly and know each other well," Ismael said. "Many of them took part in Turkey 2013, and that experience helped them when it came to qualifying for Rio de Janeiro. I missed the AFC U-23 Championship because of club commitments, but I’ll definitely be in Rio to help my country. We hope to keep up our great run of form and give 100 per cent so that the fans back home have something to cheer about.”
And who is to say that Ismael will not one day return to Brazil to write a new chapter of his hitherto successful career, as he did in Turkey?