In the summer of 2003, Sporting Lisbon played Manchester United in an exhibition to inaugurate the Alvalade XXI Stadium.
A young winger dressed in green and white ran John O’Shea ragged. Immediately after losing 3-1, United players urged Sir Alex Ferguson to splash the cash on the young talent.
The Scottish manager was typically one step ahead — he had already agreed to sign the 17-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo the previous evening.
“This was Manchester United and Cristiano was treating them like they were small boys,” he said. “It was incredible to see a player like this.”
Eleven years later, in the autumn of 2014, Smiljanic, now Under-21 coach at Grasshoppers Zurich, was reminded of this otherwise meaningless match while watching the first training session of a player newly recruited by Michael Skibbe, the Swiss side’s head coach.
Sherko Kareem, from Baghdad’s Al Shorta Sports Club, was an 18-year-old with a Ronaldo-style racing-stripe shaved into his head. He made Smiljanic’s heart beat faster.
“The first time I saw Sherko play, he had just arrived directly from Iraq and you would have thought he had played only on the streets: lots of trickery but no sense of where to be on the field,” recalled Smiljanic.
“It was incredible to see. Very strange, but very refreshing.”
Kareem has been in Rio de Janeiro for the past two weeks competing in the Olympic Games with the Iraqi U23 team.
Although Iraq failed to progress from their group, a goalless draw with Brazil in Brasilia showed that the young Iraqi with the lack of tactical awareness is learning.
“Sherko is one of the most promising players in Iraq and because of his experience in the Swiss league, we know we can trust him to play in a different position,” Abdulghani Alghazali told The National after the match.
“We saw it work well; he showed he can also be a good support player, so it is something we can consider again in the future.”
After moving south to Al Shorta, he was called upon by Zaidan for the 2013 Fifa U17 World Cup in the UAE.
Although Iraq lost all three of their group games, the winger showed plenty of promise and scored against Mexico in Al Ain.
“I want to play in Europe,” Kareem had said boldly after the tournament. “I can be an ambassador of football for Iraq, but mainly I want to challenge myself at the highest levels of my sport.”
A Tunisian scout living in Austria alerted Swiss side Grasshoppers Zurich to the availability of this lean, confident dribbler with electric pace and a tendency to drift in from the left flank.