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Safaa Hadi's Russian adventure

Iraq national team midfielder Safaa Hadi in action
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  • Safaa Hadi is the first Iraqi to play in Russia’s Premier League
  • Midfielder has been key to Iraq's fine start in Qatar 2022 qualifying
  • 21-year-old enjoying his Russian experience

February 2020 was a turning point in the life of stylish Iraqi midfielder Safaa Hadi. That was when the promising youngster signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with PFC Krylia Sovetov Samara, becoming the first Iraqi to play in the Russian Premier League.

After starting out in youth football at the prestigious Ammo Baba Academy in Baghdad, Hadi got his first senior team experience with Amant Baghdad SC. He then moved between Al-Minaa SC, Al-Zawra'a SC, and Al-Shorta SC before being called up to the Iraqi national team for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and subsequent Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.

In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the 21-year-old discussed his move to Russia and the difficulties faced during his first professional assignment outside Iraq. He also expressed his firm desire to continue playing in the host nation of world football’s flagship event two years ago.

"It's normal to face difficulties at the start of a new journey, and Russia was very different for me in terms of society and language," Hadi said from his place of residence in Samara.

"I had to adapt to the new life and situation here. As a young man leaving his family for the first time and living outside Iraq, I had a tough time. But with determination and ambition, I overcame most of the difficulties. Now I know some Russian and also how to behave, even if I still have so much to learn."

Immense joy

Despite the many difficulties faced and the fact that he only played four minutes for his new club in March, the midfielder seems to be enjoying the Russian experience, especially being able to play and train on the same pitches that hosted football’s finest exponents during the 2018 FIFA World Cup™.

Hadi has seen first-hand the positive impact the tournament has had on the entire country and said of the event: "The 2018 World Cup finals stood out in terms of organisation and stadiums. After those games, the subject of football was on everyone’s lips in Russia. Hosting a tournament of the calibre of the World Cup and welcoming fans from every corner of the world certainly had a positive effect here."

"Although there has long been a premier league here in Russia, the World Cup gave a huge boost to Russian football. The stadiums are of the highest quality, and personally I'm proud to have had the opportunity to play on pitches where the world best footballers played two years ago," he added.

Ready return of football

Hadi's first playing experience with Krylia in March was certainly short-lived. Just one day after he debuted for the club, Russia suspended all sports activities due to the Covid-19 pandemic, much to the Iraqi’s regret.

"I was greatly affected by the suspension of football. But despite this, I've been training daily at the team's internal facilities. Now we're stuck in a hotel on the club’s premises waiting for the league to resume as soon as possible.

"When the action restarts, I hope there'll be an opportunity for me to prove myself and show that I was an important addition to Krylia, one of the best clubs in the Russian league. The resumption will open many doors for me, especially with the presence of big teams like Zenit Saint Petersburg, Spartak Moscow and others."

However, his quarantine at the club’s premises in Russia has had at least one positive aspect for Hadi. He met with Ksenia Polyakova, the Russian rhythmic gymnast and former world champion, to produce a joint video aimed at raising awareness of the importance of physical exercise at home.

"Collaborating with a gymnastics champion for this video was a new experience for me," Hadi said. "I'm pleased to have had an opportunity like this, which has given me many positive things during these difficult times."

Attainable dream

Hadi played a significant role in his country's early successes in the second round of the AFC qualifying for Qatar 2022, where the Lions of Mesopotamia lead a tough Group C that also features heavyweights Iran, who Iraq beat 2-1.

Discussing his country's qualifying campaign thus far, Hadi said: "We’ve had some positive results and are top of our group, which is no coincidence. Our performances have been exceptional thanks to a young squad interspersed with experienced veterans.

"For me and the Iraqi team, the dream is to reach the World Cup. The tournament will be held for the first time in an Arab country, and one that is also geographically close to Iraq. I hope we can realise this dream through the efforts of all Iraqis, and not just through the work of Safaa Hadi and all the other Iraqi players. Our people deserve to have the joy of seeing Iraq at the World Cup finals."

Safaa Hadi in action against Yemen
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