The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, was under pressure to intervene last night over her department's decision to refuse Nashat Akram, a star of Iraq's Asian Cup-winning team, a work permit to join Manchester City
Sven Goran Eriksson had hoped to sign Akram, a player for whom he says he has "huge sympathy", but looks likely to miss out until the summer at least because his country narrowly failed to make the world's top 70 – a situation that, it can be argued, has been caused in part by violence in the Middle East.
Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East, said yesterday that the decision denied City the opportunity to employ somebody "who wants to come and work legitimately, a role model for his country, whose presence here can heal divisions in Iraq".
Vaz said parliament has given ministers the right to exercise discretion in such cases and they should use it. "This case sends out all the wrong messages," he said. "I shall be calling on the Home Secretary to review this decision."
City have already lost an appeal against the Home Office ruling, but hope remains after the Iraqi government took up Akram's cause. They have sent a letter to the British Ambassador in Iraq. Midfielder Akram currently plays for Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates and has been the subject of speculation over a Premier League move since he played a key role in helping Iraq bring home last year's Asian Cup.
The Iraqi team, which trains outside Iraq, has not played a home game in nearly 20 years because of fears of violence and UN sanctions imposed during Saddam Hussein's rule. Iraq have been ranked only 71 and 72 in the Fifa rankings. A spokesman for the Home Office said it refused to comment on individual cases but City are hoping that pressure will help. Their pursuit of the £14m Brazilian striker Joao may also find them encountering work permit problems, as the CSKA Moscow player has not played the requisite number of matches for his national side.
"This is a big blow and a great disappointment to us," Eriksson said. "I have huge sympathy for Nashat. He is a very good footballer with an excellent international pedigree.
"He has now returned to the Middle East and we will keep in touch with him. He is somebody who we will maintain an interest in for the long term."
Akram's website said: "The main reason behind the rejection is known to be the average ranking of Iraq in the last two years.
"Iraq's average ranking in that time was 71 which wasn't convincing to the work permit authority in the United Kingdom."Reuse content