BAGHDAD (AP) – An Iraqi soccer star can't sign with a professional British club because Iraq's Asian Cup-winning national team barely missed being ranked in the world's top 70 — a situation blamed partly on violence in the country.
Nashat Akram lost his bid for a work permit in Britain due to the technicality involving the rankings, officials with the English Premier League club Manchester City said. The decision has disappointed fans in both countries, especially Iraq, where even the political establishment had lobbied for Akram.
"The deal has collapsed," Manchester City spokesman Paul Tyrrell said Monday, adding that the team had appealed the decision but lost. "The player couldn't get a work permit from the Home Office."
He added that Manchester City will try to sign Akram in the offseason.
The British Home Office, which administers the work permits required for non-European players, said it couldn't comment on individual cases.
The Iraqi was instrumental in Iraq's Asian Cup victory over Saudi Arabia in July, which was met by a rare outpouring of pride and excitement in the war-torn country.
Posters featuring a smiling Akram are plastered on walls around Baghdad with the slogan "the dream came true because of our determination and zeal."
But the national team has been unable to move up in the rankings because it has been impossible to play any home matches due to fears of violence. The team, which practices outside Iraq, hasn't played a home game in nearly 20 years because of fears of strife and U.N. sanctions under Saddam Hussein.
"Players do not have a secure enough atmosphere to develop their skills here," said Ahmed Abbas, general secretary of the Iraqi Soccer Association. "Even abroad, we have technical problems in playing because we have difficulties in arranging flights for the players inside Iraq."
Akram's agent, Najim Mohammed, acknowledged Iraq's rank was 72 but said an exception should be made.
"Everybody knows that Iraq is going through difficult circumstances," he said. "We were shocked by such an unfair decision. We had hoped that British authorities would understand the current situation of the country."
Akram is currently playing with a team in the United Arab Emirates. Many of the Iraqi players are signed with league teams across the Middle East but haven't broken into the European field.
Ahmed Radhi, a former soccer star and an Iraqi lawmaker on the parliamentary sports and youth committee, said it was frustrating that Akram would not get a chance to prove his skills with a major club in Britain.
"Our players play only few matches due to the security situation, and it would have been a good opportunity for Akram to play in a strong league with professional players," Radhi said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan.
Tyrrell said British officials were just as disappointed.
"He is a guy we have scouted for some time," Tyrrell said. "Our scouts have been to the Middle East and he was the leading player playing for the current Asia Cup holders."
The Iraqi government, which welcomed the soccer victory as proof that Iraqis from all religious sects could unite, has issued its own appeal to the British government.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said a letter was sent to the British ambassador in Iraq.
"We are trying to help Akram with his problem," he said. "I have sent a request to the Home Office to reconsider the decision. The Iraqi government is exerting efforts to solve the issue."
Abdul-Rahman Rashid, the head of the most popular club in Iraq, Zawra, where Akram started his career, said the contract would set an important precedent for other Iraqi players.
"Such a move if completed would be a source of pride to all Iraqis," he said. "We were very happy to hear the news that Akram was to join a top English team. We had hoped that this move would open the doors for many Iraqi players to join esteemed international clubs."
Associated Press writer Tariq Panja in London contributed to this report.