SK7, the pride of Kirkuk
© Getty Images

There aren’t many positive headlines coming out of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk these days. But the incisive and creative attacking play of native son Sherko Kareem for his U-17 national team is drawing attention to the city in northern Iraq for all the right reasons.

“I love you all and I will keep trying my best here at the World Cup for you,” was the message he passed through FIFA.com to his friends and family back home in Kirkuk. “People know Iraq for certain negative reasons around the world,” the team’s talented No7 added after a second-straight loss at the U-17 World Cup, to Mexico in the desert city of Al Ain. “But I’m honoured to wear the shirt of my country, to show the world that there are other things in Iraq. My main goal is to entertain the Iraqi people and make them as happy as I can.”

Everything I do I base it on the way Cristiano Ronaldo plays.
Sherko on his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo

There’s no denying that Iraq’s national team have faced more challenges than most of the sides competing here in UAE, and thoughts of the tension and troubles back home can not be far from the minds of the players. Four days before their first game, a bomb blast outside a Mosque in Kirkuk killed eight worshipers and wounded 12 more.

But the Iraqi junior team, with budding talents like Sherko and captain Mohammed Salam, offers a different view , a more hopeful veiw, of the war-torn west Asian nation. They have yet to win, but they are still alive in the competition with a game to go. And in Sherko they have a bright, shining star, a natural who has what it takes to go a long way in the game. Never hesitating to pull off an audacious step-over or create a bit of something from nothing, the withdrawn striker can also play out wide, and he is reminding fans here in UAE of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

“He’s the number-one player for me, everything I do I base it on the way Cristiano Ronaldo plays,” added Sherko, who even looks a little like CR7 with his sculpted dark hair and lean, muscular physique. He wears a wide smile when talking about his hero too. “I wear the No7 shirt as a homage to him. I love to watch his play and to copy his moves and feints. When he’s playing, I’m watching, and I’m paying close attention.”

Sherko’s big goal is to spurn the offers coming his way from professional clubs in the Arab world and make a name for himself in Europe, at the pinnacle of club football like his Portuguese hero at Manchester United, and now Real Madrid. His contract is owned by Baghdad club Al Shorta, one of the oldest and most successful clubs in Iraq, where he is a member of the first team. He spent last season on loan with Zakho FC in Kurdistan, not far from the Turkish border. He’s inching his way to Europe, but in Sherko there’s an eagerness, an impatience, to begin his journey.

Wanderlust hits hard
He loves his homeland, but his dreams lay beyond Iraq. “I want to play in Europe,” said Sherko, who was rumoured to be in talks with Dutch club Ajax at the start of the tournament. “I can be an ambassador of football for Iraq, but mainly I want to challenge myself at the highest levels of my sport.”

His play here in UAE so far will do those hopes no harm. He came into the finals after finishing best player and top scorer at the U-17 Asian Cup, where he pulled off some wonder-goals that had YouTube buzzing. His lone goal here against Mexico highlighted the best parts of his game as he was in the right place at the right time to fire home from 18 yards with total precision, the ball slamming in off the post. “This is where my game is; I like to attack, to go forward,” he said, adding that he thinks Iraq should have attacked more in their two games, and that they showed their opponents “too much respect.”

In their third and final Group F game in Dubai, Iraq will have no choice but to attack as anything less than a win will see their tournament end. “We know the Nigerians are strong,” the confident player admitted, somewhat grudgingly. “But it’s a game that is set up for me. I will attack all the time because we need a win and this is what I love to do. It’s our last hope, so I will give it everything that I have.”

With a desire to show his beloved Iraq in a positive light, and with the skill and desire to match, pundits would do well not to write off young Sherko and co just yet.