Zob Ahan’s Iraqi import

Iraq international Hawar Mula Mohammed is nothing if not well travelled. The midfield sensation left homeland side Al Quwa Al Jawiya in 2005 and enjoyed spells in Cyprus, Lebanon and Qatar before arriving in Iran, where he played for Perspolis in the 2009/10 season. Following a short spell on the books of fellow Iranians Esteghlal, the 30-year-old agreed terms this season with Zob Ahan, an ambitious outfit looking to be the first Iranian club to win the AFC Champions League.

Last year the Isfahan-based side came within one game of lifting the continent’s premier club trophy, only to be denied in the final by Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.

Undaunted, Zob Ahan will be hoping to go one better this year and have boosted their chances with the signing of Hawar Mulla Mohammed, who not only lifted the AFC Asian Cup with Iraq in 2007, but was the first Iraqi to play and score in the UEFA Champions League.

Talking exclusively to FIFA.com, Mohammed began our interview by recalling his experience in the 2008 UEFA Champions League with Cypriot outfit Anorthosis Famagusta: “I always wanted to take part in the Champions League because it’s one of the biggest club competitions in the world. Not only did I manage to leave my mark, I got a goal, as well.”

It should be noted that his experience in top-level club competitions goes beyond this single European adventure. Excluding this current campaign, he has appeared in three editions of the AFC Champions League: in 2004 with Al Quwa Al Jawiya, in 2007 with UAE side Al Ain and finally last season with Iran’s Esteghlal, for whom he featured in every match in the tournament and scored against Uzbeki challengers Pakhtakor and Al Nasr of Saudi Arabia.

“This is my fourth time in the Asian competition,” said the Mosul-born playmaker, “and it’s a huge tournament with a vast following in Asia and beyond.”

Reflecting on the differences between the European and Asian tournaments, Mohammed chose his words carefully: “The Asian Champions League is extremely important and there’s not a player that doesn’t take it seriously. The continent’s finest clubs are playing in it, after all. The real difference between the two is the higher levels of professionalism in Europe.”

The veteran got his start as a professional in the Lebanese League with Beirut side Al Ansar, with whom he won a league and cup double – a spell he insists that laid the foundations for his later success.

“My time with Al Ansar was successful by any standard,” he said. “It was my first professional contract and I won the league and the cup and played alongside fellow Iraq international Salih Sadir, a fine player himself. Salih and I made a real impact with that side before I moved to Cyprus to play with Apollon Limassol.”

Mohammed is no less proud of his achievements in Iran, saying: “I performed well for Perspolis, where I won the Hazfi Cup. I then carried that form with me to Esteghlal, appearing in the Champions League and reaching the finals of the Hazfi Cup, before Zob Ahan expressed an interest in signing me.”

It doesn’t bother me that I haven’t scored because a lot of top-flight players take their time to settle in when they change clubs.
Hawar Mulla Mohammed, Zob Ahan midfielder.

After only four matches in the Iranian league with Zob Ahan, the player travelled to Korea Republic for the first leg of their quarter-final with Suwon Samsung Bluewings on 14 September. After a battling performance the Iranian side came away with a 1-1 draw that now has them dreaming of a semi-final berth.

Looking back on that first leg, the midfielder said: “It was my first Asian game for Zob Ahan and it was a tough match for us, but we put one past them on one of our rare attacks and claimed a priceless draw.”

“Our coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh drew up an unusual game plan for the clash,” he added, “I was playing out of position alongside Hugo Machado, but it turned out very well. Together we managed to intercept most of the through balls that make the Bluewings such a dangerous side coming forward.”

The return leg is set for Wednesday and Mohammed is clear about his team’s ambitions for the encounter.

“There’s no such thing as impossible in football. We have to respect the South Koreans even though the odds are in our favour because we’re playing at home in Isfahan in front of our fans. It’s vital that we stay wary of their threat and keep a clean sheet.”

That said, keeping their goal intact will be only half the battle for the home side. Their front men must find a way to breach the Korean defence and Mohammed, yet to score for his new club, is keen to make a contribution.

“I’ve got a lot of self-confidence,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me that I haven’t scored because a lot of top-flight players take their time to settle in when they change clubs. Look at [Fernando] Torres.”

“Perhaps my failure to get on the score sheet is down to my role in the side,” he concluded. “I’m currently used more as a defensive player than an attacking one. However, I still get a few chances from free-kicks and I’ll be looking to knock one in against the Bluewings on Wednesday.”

Whether he scores or not, Zob Ahan will be hoping his experience at the highest level can take them further down the road to Champions League glory.