Iraqi soccer phenom Nashat Akram’s face already graces hundreds of posters plastered around Baghdad. And in recent days, he had been poised to do what no Iraqi player has done before: Sign a professional contract with a top team in England’s Premier League -- a trailblazing move that many predicted would open the “golden door” for future soccer stars.
The only thing standing in his way was a work permit.
Last week, British officials denied his application for a second time, consigning Akram to the same fate as thousands of other Iraqis, his dreams another casualty of war.
“This is a very, very unfair decision,” said Akram’s agent, Najim Mohammed. “We want to make good relations between Iraq and the U.K. and America. We want to show Iraqi people these people want to help give us a hand. But this is against Iraqi people. . . . They keep the people suffering. They don’t give them any joy.”
As the news spread Saturday across soccer-crazed Iraq, fans reacted with anger and disbelief. Iraqi government and sports officials vowed to appeal and threatened to launch large-scale protests that would be visible around the world.
Britain’s Home Office, which issues passports, visas and citizenship to immigrants, said it could not comment on individual cases.
But Akram’s would-be employer, Manchester City Football Club, said the government’s rejection of the appeal was based on a technicality. The Iraqi national team has not recently played against any of the world’s top 20 teams and its two-year average rank is 71. To meet the requirements of the visa, the team needs to be ranked in the top 70.
“I’m sure people aren’t happy [in Iraq], but people aren’t happy at Manchester City either,” club spokesman Paul Tyrrell said. “We genuinely don’t understand the decision. We thought the immigration authorities would take into consideration that Iraq, because of the domestic problems, would have difficulty playing against any of the top 20 countries.”
Despite the low ranking, the team won the Asian Cup last year and placed fourth in the 2004 Olympics. The only way to move up in the rankings is to play more, but because of the war, it has been impossible for Iraq to play any home matches.
“Thanks to the Americans, we can’t do this,” said Ahmed Abbas, general secretary of the Iraqi Football Assn. Because of the country’s security problems, he said, “we couldn’t have games in Iraq.”
“Even abroad, we can’t have games.”
To help persuade the government panel, Manchester City Football Club manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, another team official and a representative of the Professional Footballer’s Assn. attended the appeals hearing last week in London to deliver personal pleas on Akram’s behalf.
“This is a big blow and a great disappointment to us,” Eriksson said in a statement released on the team’s website. “I have huge sympathy for Nashat. He is a very good footballer with an excellent international pedigree. . . . He is somebody who we will maintain an interest in for the long term.”
The 24-year-old midfielder is considered a rising star capable of creating scoring opportunities. He had been playing with the Al-Ain club in the United Arab Emirates, but Manchester City reportedly bought out the remainder of his contract for $800,000. Tyrrell said the team had been scouting him extensively and Akram had already begun training in Britain.
“We knew how good he was,” Tyrrell said. “He would have gone straight to our first team squad. He’s a top quality player.”
The team said it had exhausted the appeals process, but planned to re-submit a request for a work permit in the summer.
Meanwhile, Iraqi sports officials called on the government to intervene.
“Before, they had the excuse that this was a rogue state because of Saddam Hussein and because of his human rights atrocities and attacking neighboring states,” said Ahmed Sabri, a member of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.
“Now, they don’t have any excuse, we’re a democratic state. This makes us question: Is there another agenda?”
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said he personally had requested that the Home Office reconsider its decision. After the appeal was rejected Wednesday, Dabbagh said, he spoke to the British ambassador in Iraq and sent a formal letter to the British government.
Iraqi lawmaker Fawzi Akram, a member of the parliament’s Sports and Youth Committee, said he planned to ask the foreign ministry to look into the matter.
“Highly decorated Iraqi players from different kinds of sports are prevented from entering different countries regardless of their high level of professionalism,” the lawmaker said. “They are trying to repress Iraqi professionals from attaining their objectives and goals.”
In the last few weeks, as Nashat Akram headed to Britain to practice with the team, soccer fans across Iraq had been eagerly awaiting his start with Manchester City.
Ahmed Salman, 19, an aspiring player, said he spent a “big part of his savings” throwing a party for his friends when he found out that Akram would play in England.
“But now I am shocked that his work permit was denied,” he said. “I thought it was a message to all Iraqi youth telling them not to work hard or make something out of yourselves because you will be rejected in the end as you are Iraqi.”
Oday Fadhil Mahmoud, president of the fan club of Iraq’s most popular team, Zawra, said, “They thought that this is the golden door for other Iraqi players. I am going to the club right now. I don’t know how I’m going to face the people. This brings hopelessness to all Iraqis.”
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and Janet Stobart in London, and a special correspondent in Hillah, Iraq, contributed to this report.