BAGHDAD: Iraqi football legend Ahmed Radhi died Sunday from complications linked to COVID-19, the health ministry said, just hours before he was to be flown for treatment in Jordan.
Radhi, 56, scored what remains Iraq’s only World Cup finals goal in 1986 against Belgium.
He had been hospitalized last week in Baghdad after testing positive for coronavirus but had checked out on Thursday after his condition improved.
But he relapsed a few hours later and was readmitted but passed away early Sunday.
In a video reportedly from his hospital bed on Saturday, Radhi could be seen struggling to breathe as medics in full protective gear try to treat him.
“Sometimes it’s hard to breathe but that’s normal,” he could be heard telling the medical team, his voice strained.
Radhi, a striker, led Iraq to victory in the Gulf Cups of 1984 and 1988, when he was voted Asian footballer of the year.
In the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, he scored against Belgium but Iraq went on to lose the match 2-1 and exited the tournament in the group stage without a point.
He fled Iraq in 2006 after its Olympic Committee head was kidnapped during the height of the sectarian violence that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
Radhi moved with his family to the Jordanian capital Amman but returned to Iraq in 2007 for a career in politics, replacing a member of parliament who defected to join the bloody insurgency raging across the country.
He was an unsuccessful candidate in the 2014 and 2018 elections with the National Alliance, a coalition of Sunni and Shiite figures.
When news of his death broke, football fans in Iraq exploded in grief.
“With great sadness and sorrow, we mourn our lifelong companion, our fans’ ardent star, the unrivalled athlete and son of Iraq, Ahmed Radhi,” said Iraq’s new sports minister Adnan Darjal, himself a former football star.
“Farewell, Abu Faisal, goodbye to my brother Ahmed Radhi,” wrote former star and Iraqi League President Hussein Saeed.
The director of Jordan’s Football Association Ali Al-Hussein said the world had lost “a sports star whom we cherish and are proud of.”
Iraq has registered nearly 30,000 cases of the coronavirus and deaths topped 1,000 earlier this week.
The country’s health system — worn down by years of conflict and insufficient maintenance — has been overwhelmed by the spiking numbers.