In the past year, Mohammad Dawood has been compared to a national hero, identified as one of the most coveted players in world youth football, and invited to visit Real Madrid by his sporting hero, Cristiano Ronaldo. Sweet 16 is struggling to get much more satisfying for Iraq’s most exciting young Lion Cub.
The Iraqi U17 forward netted six times to finish top scorer and MVP at the U16 Asian Championships last summer, prompting an invite to the Spanish capital, and he has already bagged three goals in two games at this month’s Fifa U17 World Cup. His brace against Chile on Wednesday set Iraq on course for their first win at this level and results elsewhere in the group have secured them a safe passage to the knock-out stages.
On Saturday though, Dawood will face his toughest test yet when he comes up against an England side filled with players from the academies of clubs such as Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City.
“England are a good side with excellent young players, so we are excited to play them,” said Dawood, who was recently rated by The Guardian as one of the 60 best young talents in the world. “We are Asian champions though, so we can be confident that if we play well and as a team we can get the result we want.”
Steve Cooper, the England manager, knows he has his work cut out stopping the in-form Al Naft striker. He watched the pacy Dawood stretch a high Mexican backline to open the scoring in their 1-1 draw before dominating a disorganised Chilean defence with clever movement in a 3-0 victory, netting twice, playing a crucial role in the third, and winning — but missing — a penalty.
“He’s a guy who can make a difference up the pitch,” said the English coach. “He’s certainly got an eye for the back of the net, has a lot of goals already and has a wonderful work rate too, so we know we will have to get our game plan right and look after him.”
Mohammad Dawood Yaseen has come a long way in a short time. Born in Baghdad, he grew up playing football with friends on the litter-strewn streets of Al Zafaniya in the east of the city. In 2014, he joined the youth team at Al Khutoot and finished the following season as the junior league’s top scorer. His performances at last summer’s U16 Asian Championships earned him a move to Al Naft, where he broke into the first team, scored his first Iraqi Premier League goal in February and added eight more before the end of the season.
“I grew up in a poor neighbourhood so, of course, it was a hard time,” Dawood told Four Four Two Arabia. “Our country was in disorder, which affected our daily life and our chances to train and play football, but this love for the game was always growing inside me. I’ve said it before, but for Iraqis football is like the air that we must breathe and for me it was no different.”
Dawood’s passion and determination is obvious on the pitch. While goals get him headlines, it is his all round work-rate that gets him admirers and has earned him comparisons with Younus Mahmoud, the former Iraqi captain who scored his country’s winning goal in their historic 2007 Asian Cup final.
“Mohammed is a talented player,” said Dawood’s coach, Qahtan Al Rubaye. “Personally, I think he will be the next star of Iraqi football, like Younus was before him. The key similarity between the two is that, of course they both know how to score, but they also both know how to make a difference on the field. Mohammed works so hard and in the upcoming years he will only get better as he improves physically and mentally, not to forget the experience he will gain from events like this.”
In many ways, goals are a direct byproduct of Dawood’s game. It is his constant hassling of defenders, chasing loose balls, fighting with full-backs, coming deep, and shooting on sight — at times, still, when a pass is the better option — that invariably leads to his goals. Although his second against Chile was an exquisite, curling free-kick that he had won with a clever burst of acceleration, it was his first strike that demonstrated the raw talent, a mixture of immaturity and inescapable desire as he mistimed his volley to kick the air, before chasing the ball down, outmuscling a defender and striking a deflected shot in at the near post.
A 16-year-old Arab with such an impressive knack for getting goals from nothing has, however, predictably raised doubts regarding Dawood’s age. A post on social media after his scoring exploits last summer prompted almost 300 comments, with almost all questioning his legitimacy. Fifa, which records Dawood’s birthdate as November 22, 2000, is keen to avoid further controversy after reigning U17 champions Nigeria were found last year to have 26 overage players in their squad.
In India, football’s governing body has conducted Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) wrist scans on four randomly-selected players from each squad. MRI scans can determine whether a player is below 17 with 99 per cent accuracy.
“When it comes to Fifa’s own competitions, we are encouraging and supporting participating member associations to conduct their own MRI tests in order to ensure that players are compliant with the age limit,” a Fifa spokesman told FFT Arabia. “While such tests by the individual member associations are not yet mandatory, the advantages of carrying them out are self-apparent.”
Dawood is meanwhile focusing only on football and is already dreaming of a move to Europe. “Every young player wishes to play for a big club in the world and I am no exception,” he said. “I hope to be a professional player in a big club. I am ready to move and my family support me.”
If the Iraqi youngster can leave a lasting impression against a well-drilled English defence on Saturday night, and later in the round of 16, his dream may well inch closer.