MIAMI: From Michigan’s minor leagues to the sweltering mania of a Basra international match, Iraqi superstar Justin Meram’s football career is a journey rarely traveled.
The attacking midfielder is enjoying his best season, scoring 13 goals and laying on seven assists to help Columbus Crew reach Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Eastern Conference wholesale soccer jerseys final, and he spoke to Arab News ahead of the two-legged showdown with Toronto FC, the first leg of which takes place tomorrow.
“For me, it’s about always striving for more, always wanting to get better every year and never being comfortable with my progression as a player,” Meram told Arab News when asked to explain his stellar season.
“I’ve installed that mindset in myself. My coaches instil that in me. Every year we want to go further as a team.”
Meram’s determination comes from his upbringing among Michigan’s 120,000-strong Iraqi Chaldean community. His parents are both from near Mosul in northern Iraq, separately emigrating to the US in the 1970s before meeting in their adopted country.
“I’ve three older brothers. My whole family is involved in sports. I grew up playing the game. You follow your brothers. I was pretty good as a kid and my uncle would train me a lot in my younger years. I still use some moves he taught me at 5 to 6 years old,” said Meram, whose childhood idol was Argentinian all-time great striker Gabriel Batistuta.
“I struggled for several years, but my parents were there to keep me positive and keep me mentally attuned. When you have a lot of good people behind you in your life, as a person and you are involved in the sport you love, you find a way to shine.”
After several years of college soccer, Meram was drafted to Columbus in 2011 and he made his professional debut that February aged 22. He struggled initially to establish himself, which perhaps explains how he was unknown to Iraqi football until a fan group intervened.
Yousif Alkhafajy set up a website to scour the world for players of Iraqi origin after the country’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. That search led him to Columbus Crew’s homepage.
“I got a Facebook message from Yousif asking if I was Iraqi, asking if I was interested in playing for a national team,” said Meram, who was voted Columbus Crew’s Most Valuable Player in 2016 and is nominated again this year.
“We started talking more and talking more. There was about a two-year process to get all the paperwork and documentation from my parents, to obtain a passport. Once that happened, I had my first call-up.”
Meram made his debut at the 2014 Gulf Cup in a 1-0 loss to Kuwait, and is now a regular in the team. As one of two Catholics in the squad, he had been nervous about integrating with his teammates.
“My teammates were very open. They would ask me questions, I would ask them. So, the religious side was very easy, much easier than people thought,” said Meram.
“We speak Chaldean at home, they all speak Arabic. When I first got there, it was tough because if you can’t communicate, you can’t laugh, you can’t joke, you can’t get to know someone. Over the years, I’ve learned Arabic. They see my personality. It’s been great.”
Iraq’s national team has endured hardships unparalleled in the international game. For nearly 40 years, the team has rarely played in the country; in 1986, Iraq became the first — and only — nation to reach the World Cup finals without playing any qualifiers at home.
FIFA re-imposed a ban on home internationals in 2013, citing security fears, but in May eased restrictions to permit home friendlies in Basra, Irbil and Karbala. Around 60,000 fans packed into the $550 million Basra Sports City stadium in May as Iraq beat Jordan 1-0 to mark international football’s return to the country.
Meram made his first visit to Iraq to play in their 2-1 victory over Kenya in Basra on Oct. 5.
“It was one of the most life-changing moments of my career,” said Meram.
“Just to see 30,000 Iraqis in the stadium, they’re so passionate. They’re waiting for this moment, for me to get there. When I left the pitch to a standing ovation, their chants gave me goosebumps. I wish we could play all our games there because it was unbelievable.”
A ban on competitive matches remains in place, but with the rout of Daesh and a strong government emerging in Baghdad, prospects for peace are perhaps the best since the 1970s.
“Football is the biggest thing in Iraq. It brings everybody together. Football’s gonna help the country become stronger,” said Meram.
That optimism coincides with an upturn in the national team’s fortunes following an excellent 2017 in which they won five and drew three of nine matches, including taking points from Asian powerhouses Japan and Australia in World Cup qualifying.
Iraq fell short of reaching the finals in Russia, but have already qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup, which kicks off in the UAE in less than 14 months.
Meram is confident Iraq can extend their recent excellent record, with the Mesopotamian Lions following up their surprise 2007 triumph with quarterfinal and semifinal appearances in 2007 and 2011 respectively.
“Going all the way” would constitute success this time around, said Meram, citing the recent appointment of coach Basim Qasim, whose managerial honors include three domestic championships and Iraqi club football’s first Asian title.
“We have such a talented group. It’s just now we’re starting to see with this coach the true Iraqi football style — a lot of combinations, a lot of short plays, just quality. Obviously, you want to win anytime you play but especially for this country, which is enduring so much hardship,” said Meram. “We want to do it for them, not for us. Our big goal is win it all.”
First though, Meram must face table-toppers Toronto for a place in the MLS final. The Canadians hammered Columbus 5-0 in May as a mid-season slump led Ohio’s finest to lose nine games in 14 and make the play-offs an unlikely prospect, but a 10-match unbeaten finish to the regular season propelled them into the knockout rounds.
After beating Atlanta United on penalties, Meram scored as Columbus prevailed 4-3 on aggregate in the semifinals versus Abu Dhabi-owned New York City, who included World Cup winners Andrea Pirlo and David Villa among their ranks.
“This group is very confident. To get here hasn’t been easy. To win in Atlanta, one of the most powerful offenses in the league, and then to (play) against New York City, arguably the second-best team all year, and win that, we feel this is our time right now,” added Meram. “We hope it’s gonna be the same thing with Toronto. We get the first game at home, so we’ll go for it.”