Baghdad Messi: A Football Dream Shattered

in 10th Duhok International Film Festival

by Aina Randrianatoandro

Six years after his successful first fiction feature Zagros (2017), Kurdish-Belgian filmmaker Sahim Omar Kalifa adapted his short film Baghdad Messi (which won awards at various international film festivals and was nominated for the Oscars in 2014) into a feature film. This adaptation provides an opportunity for the scriptwriter Kobe Van Steenberghe to further develop the characters and the world of the story.

As the title suggests, the film is set in Baghdad. In 2009, six years into the occupation of the Iraqi capital by U.S. coalition forces, religious conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites continued to escalate. Eleven-year-old Hamoudi (Ahmed Mohammed) tries to escape the harsh reality of his daily life through his passion for football. He plays with his friends in the streets of the war-torn city, hoping one day to become as good as his idol, Argentine footballer Lionel Messi. One day, Hamoudi becomes the unfortunate collateral victim of a street shootout and bomb attack targeting a convoy of the American security company Unity, where his father Kadhim (Atheer Adel), considered a traitor by the local population, works as a translator. Urgently taken to the hospital by Kadhim, Hamoudi discovers upon regaining consciousness that his football dream is shattered as he has lost a leg in the attack.

Ahmed Mohammed’s life bears striking similarities to that of Hamoudi, the character he portrays in Baghdad Messi. The young actor lost his left leg at the age of four, a victim of a missile fired due to a misunderstanding by American or Iraqi authorities who thought they were targeting ISIS. Like Hamoudi, Ahmed Mohammed is also a huge fan of Lionel Messi. In March 2023, he even had the chance to meet him at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, following the match between Paris Saint-Germain FC and Stade Rennais FC. This thoughtful casting choice is undoubtedly a key factor that allowed Ahmed Mohammed to portray Hamoudi with poignant sincerity: a remarkable performance rewarded with the Best Actor Award at the 10th Duhok International Film Festival in December 2023, where, as the opening film, Baghdad Messi was screened for the first time in Iraq.

However, Ahmed Mohammed did not experience the necessity of relocating, which the character of Hamoudi in the film is forced to do. For their safety, he and his parents had to flee Baghdad to settle in a village in the countryside. A new, equally challenging life begins for them. Hamoudi, struggling with his disability, finds it difficult to integrate among village children who play football. Kadhim has turned to selling masgouf. But this less lucrative new job does not solve his financial problems. Consumed by regret and seemingly wanting to make amends, he buys a television for Hamoudi, allowing his son to follow the Champions League: a short-lived joy until the TV’s transistor burns out. Through all this, it is evident that beyond the triggering incident (the attack targeting Unity), scriptwriter Kobe Van Steenberghe took care of establishing progressive complications. As the plot unfolds, life becomes increasingly difficult for the characters, generating more conflicts and engaging the viewer, curious to know the resolution of the entire story.

Baghdad Messi is a family drama with a backdrop of social drama. It tells the story of a family affected by war, where parents try, as best as they can, to support their only son whose football dream is abruptly shattered. Without belittling the passion of their child, Salwa (Zahraa Ghandour), the pragmatic mother, wants Hamoudi to move on, as confirmed by her advice: “Honey, I know you’re a good player. But you won’t be as good as before. And there are a lot of wonderful things in life that you can learn and love.” On the contrary, Kadhim continues to support his son’s crazy dream: “There are people with no arms. They can still play the violin with their feet. Of course, you can play soccer with one leg.” Driven by paternal love, and aware that football truly represents Hamoudi’s reason for living, who does not want to miss the Champions League final between FC Barcelona led by his idol Messi and Manchester United led by Messi’s greatest rival Cristiano Ronaldo, Kadhim, accompanied by his son, and takes the risk of returning to Baghdad to fix the television.

Adopting a simple yet effective filmmaking style, Sahim Omar Kalifa depicts in Baghdad Messi a war-ravaged Iraq, where insecurity and misery are omnipresent, but where love and solidarity coexist complexly within families. The film is also inspired by the fate of Hassan Ali Na’aim (2007–2019), a one-legged young football enthusiast to whom it pays tribute in the end credits.

Aina Randrianatoandro
Edited by Birgit Beumers