Skip to main content

Aldin El Zubaidi: Iraq’s new hope?

Iraq have looked to Scotland for their latest call up. What does that mean for player and team?
Aldin El Zubaidi has become a name to look out for in the footballing world (Craig Foy)

Aldin El Zubaidi has become a name to look out for in footballing circles after he received a call up to Iraq’s international squad for its recent friendlies against Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It could well prove to be a moment which will propel the young defender into the spotlight of the footballing world.

Whilst the powerful defender didn’t get onto the pitch as Iraq defeated their opponents in Dubai, being in and around the squad can only help the development of a player with a bright future in the game.

Born in Baghdad in March 1995, El Zubaidi’s story begins in post-Gulf War Iraq. Following the climax of the war, sanctions imposed by the UN from 1990-2003 crippled the country, leading to escalating unemployment and the collapse of a once-prosperous economy. By 1998, El Zubaidi’s family made the decision to relocate to the UK, part of a mass exodus of Iraqis looking to escape.

The three-year-old Aldin and his family settled in North Lanarkshire, Scotland and have called it home ever since. Leaving Baghdad at such a young age and spending his formative years in Scotland, one might be forgiven for wondering how El Zubaidi maintained an Iraqi identity whilst embracing that of his new home. He is adamant that it was never an issue, however.

“I don’t feel like it was ever difficult to keep my Iraqi identity, being Scottish or Iraqi has never been an issue for me. I don’t think it has had an effect," El Zubaidi said.

His development as a footballer began at a local club, Cambusnethan Talbot Boys, before being snapped up by Scottish Premiership side Hamilton Academical as a 15-year-old. A successful loan spell at Arbroath has seen his stock rise, eventually leading to international representation.

The young centre back certainly felt welcomed as he came into the national team’s training camp in Dubai prior to the fixtures over DRC. In a country torn apart by sectarianism, football and the Lions of Mesopatamia in particular, is a rare unifying element.

Indeed, the memorable Asian Cup victory of 2007, in which Iraq captured the hearts of neutrals across the globe as a mixture of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish players defied the odds to win the tournament, is a prime example. With other newcomers in the squad, such as Hawbir Mustafa and Arjan Mustafa, based in the Netherlands and Sweden respectively, El Zubaidi felt that there was a positive and unified atmosphere within the camp.

“A lot of the boys were brand new but we were all welcomed. I found it pretty easy to join up with everyone," he said.

For all the talk of El Zubaidi and a new generation of displaced Iraqis representing the national team, the man who only turned 20 at the end of March is keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground.

Aldin and his family settled in North Lanarkshire, Western Scotland when he was three years old. They have called it home ever since. (Craig Foy)

“I’ve never really considered my future with either Iraq or Scotland, the thought has never really crossed my mind," he said. "My sole ambition at the moment is to break into Hamilton’s first team. The call up was completely unexpected and took me by surprise, though I was over the moon when I heard.”

That isn’t to say that El Zubaidi doesn’t have high hopes for his international future, particularly with the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro just around the corner. Iraq have qualified for the under-23 Asian Championship, putting them on course for an appearance at the Olympics.

Iraq have fond memories of participation in the Olympics, having secured fourth place in Athens in 2004, and will be hoping to win a medal in Rio. With the tournament open to under-23s only, an appearance would be the perfect opportunity for El Zubaidi to make his mark on the international stage.

“The Olympics is definitely something I would be interested in being involved in," he said. "Anytime Iraq wants me, I will be present.”

For the millions of passionate Iraqis who El Zubaidi and his teammates represent, a strong performance in Brazil could go a long way towards restoring some joy to a battered, but proud nation.

El Zubaidi’s story is proof that for all the suffering endured by millions of Iraqis, sport has always been an outlet that can provide a form of escape. As Iraq’s management team look abroad for the next top talent, it is a welcome reminder that despite the great hardship the country has faced, there is always an opportunity to succeed.