Iraqi anti-Islamic State hero footballer Ali Adnan 'makes it to European football'
A young Iraqi footballer who became a national hero after he was seen wearing military gear alongside army soldiers involved in fighting against the Islamic State (Isis) has reportedly made it to major European football.
Ali Adnan, a 21-year-old full-back dubbed 'Asia's Gareth Bale', is very close to signing with Italy's historic Seria A side Udinese.
The a talented 6ft tall player became a viral sensation last year, as when jihadists were quickly advancing deeper into Iraq after seizing Mosul he was pictured sporting a bulletproof vest, embracing Iraqi soldiers.
Local media then reported that Adnan, whose uncle is considered one of Iraq's best-ever players, had decided to take up arms against IS, volunteering for the army. Others said he had been called-up for a short period of military training due to the security crisis, before returning to football.
His club, Turkish team Caykur Rizespor, denied the reports and said he had simply visited troops during his holidays in Baghdad. The photos were nevertheless widely shared on social media, proving to be a useful propaganda tool for the government.
Adnan became a symbol of resistance and his bravery was widely celebrated online. At the beginning of the 2014-15 football season, he was back in Turkey.
In his two years with Caykur Rizespor, a club based in Rize, eastern Turkey, he has made 41 appearances with three goals, attracting the attention of Udinese, which is renowned for signing young talented players from minor leagues then to sell them on for a profit after they prove their talent.
The Italian team's sporting director Cristiano Giaretta confirmed they were interested in signing Adnan when speaking after the last Serie A match in May.
Sources at the club confirmed to IBTimes UK that the deal was close but not official, pending some paperwork linked to the visa permit and other passport-related issues.
Udinese said they were flooded by messages in Arabic as soon as news of the imminent signing was reported. The club's official Facebook page gained more than 11,000 likes in a short time, adding to a fan base of about 200,000.
The Baghdad-native became a celebrity at home after leading the national squad in its stand-out performance at the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, where Iraq won fourth place, but in Italy they reckon much of his popularity is owed to the national hero status Adnan rose to last year.
According to market rumours in the Italian press, Udinese might decide to loan him out to one of its two satellite teams, Spain's Grenada or Premier League's Watford.
By Umberto Bacchi