Why I Play for Iraq
I was checking my Facebook page when the message popped up.
“Are you Iraqi?” it read. Nothing else.
This was in 2013. I honestly didn’t know what to think at first. Being someone of Middle Eastern descent who was born and raised in the United States, and living in a post-9/11 America, can be tough. And I can’t ignore that while playing in MLS I’ve had a few fans of other teams call me a “smelly terrorist” and shout racial slurs at me during games.
As I looked at the message, I paused for a second to think. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name, Yousif Al-khafajy, but I saw that it appeared to be Middle Eastern. For whatever reason, I started typing.
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
To this day, I still think to myself, Why did I respond to that Facebook message?
I had no idea what would come next. It could have been a threat, or some troll trying to antagonize me, but to my amazement it ended up being something much better than either of those things. And the reason for the message became clear pretty quickly. Yousif was a fan of the Iraqi national soccer team, and he was in the process of scouring the Internet for the names of talented Iraqi players he could pass on to the Iraq Football Federation. He began telling me about how I might be able to represent the national team at the international level.
So I listened. And thus began this crazy journey that I’ve been on ever since, a journey with more twists and turns than a taxi ride through the streets of Basra.
It all started with that random Facebook message.
I never would’ve seen it coming, either. I’m just a kid from Michigan who loves to play soccer, and the next thing I know I’m jumping into this new ultra-competitive world where 11 players represent the hopes of an entire nation.
And, for me, that nation was one I’d only heard of in stories and seen on TV. I’d never even visited.
My desire to play soccer for a living dates back to when I was 7 years old, weaving in and out of cones at Shelby Soccer City, in Shelby Township, Michigan.
My Uncle Tony used to work there, organizing leagues and doing other things, and in his spare time he’d train me. Sometimes he gave me life lessons, too.
One day, I was playing with my junior team and scored 12 goals in a game we won 19–1. I was using all the skills Uncle Tony had taught me. I thought for sure he’d be proud.
Afterwards, I raced up to his office.
“I scored 12 goals!” I shouted, bouncing around the room.
My uncle didn’t cheer, he didn’t even smile.
He was mad.
He took me by the arm and led me into the hallway, away from the other people there.
“That is one of the most disrespectful things you’ve ever done,” he said, sternly. “You need to learn to be humble in victory. When you’re beating a team, you do it with class and respect. You should always show respect for the beautiful game we all love.”
That moment has stuck with me ever since. It represents a key part of who I am. And I definitely drew on that lesson in humility during high school when I was overlooked by pretty much every college in Michigan. I didn’t even receive a single offer to play as a walk-on.
Then, in March of 2007, near the end of my senior year, my dad moved the family construction business to Arizona, and I followed my family there a few months after finishing up school. My three brothers all had jobs in construction, and I was contemplating hanging up my boots for good to find a steady job.
The day I flew to Arizona, I joined my brothers Irvin and Jason when they went to train with their men’s league team that played at a park in Scottsdale. I didn’t know it at the time, but Maurice Hughes, a former player from Yavapai, a junior college in Prescott, was there watching one of his friends.
He thought I was talented, so he passed my name on to the coaches at Yavapai, Mike Pantalione and Hugh Bell. Before I knew it, I took a tour of the campus. They had a last-minute opening on their roster, and so without even seeing me play, they signed me up.
My two seasons at Yavapai earned me a Division 1 scholarship offer to go back home and play at the University of Michigan. By the start of 2011, I had finished my second year at Michigan and found myself standing on a stage in Baltimore, being drafted into MLS by the Columbus Crew. I had become a professional soccer player.
I’d gone from the edge of quitting, to a first-round pick.
And now, thanks to a random Facebook message — one that I almost ignored — I had a whole new world of possibilities staring back at me.
I wasted no time in exploring how to go about potentially representing Iraq in international play. I called my parents, lawyers, everyone who I thought might be able to help.
First, I had to gain my passport. That process was … complicated. And it was made more difficult by my circumstances.
Both my parents were born and raised in Iraq. My father left in the late 1960s, my mother in the 1970s. They met in Michigan, where I was born. While my mother had kept a lot of her documentation from Iraq, my father hadn’t. His focus was just on getting to the United States to give himself a better life.
“Why would I save all the paperwork when I’m 17 years old and leaving the country?” my dad asked me. “Did I really think my future son would someday grow up to be a professional soccer player and want to play for the Iraqi national team?”
At times, it felt more like I was trying to get a huge loan from a bank or something. I’d hear, OK, you’re all set. Then a month later it’d be, Actually, you need this other document, too. I’d get that extra document, and then I’d need a different passport picture. Then I’d need the U.S. Soccer Federation to write a letter. Then, when they did that, it was like: Oh, one more thing, we also need a birth certificate from where your parents are from.
I wanted to give up. It literally took almost two years in total.
By the time the USSF had written that letter, though, things were getting serious. Then one day in 2014 my phone rang and Gregg Berhalter, my coach at the time with Columbus, was on the other end.
Gregg has been a huge influence on me. Prior to his hiring in 2013, I had started just 15 out of 68 MLS games. I have tremendous respect for him, because like the coaches at Yavapai, he believed in me.
“Are you sure you want to do this … to play for Iraq?”
I just stayed silent for a moment.
“You know,” he said, “you can’t turn back once it’s done.”
I wanted my parents to feel like Iraq was moving towards a brighter day.
I had a decision to make.
There was a chance I could get called up for a training camp with the U.S. National Team, so in joining the Iraqi team I’d be risking that opportunity. But in coming to my decision, my mind kept wandering to the happy childhood stories my mother has always shared with me about growing up in Iraq.
She talks about the tall palm trees, and the crystal clear water, and the bright golden sand. The homes there often have flat roofs, and at night she’d climb on top of her family’s house with a blanket, lay down, and gaze up at the stars. And although there were some unhappy memories as well, I’ve always noticed how much she appreciated the beauty of the Iraq she once knew.
That spark in her eyes disappears when she and my father talk about the nightmares that the country has endured since. But I wanted my parents to feel like Iraq was moving towards a brighter day, and becoming a place that they would feel safe visiting again.
I had to choose Iraq.
Soccer was my gift, and I could use it to bring joy to the people there.
I had never been to the Middle East prior to joining the Iraqi national team in Saudi Arabia at the Gulf Cup in 2014.
Back then I spoke little to no Arabic. I’m constantly improving my grasp of the language, but there is no Rosetta Stone to teach you the Arabic dialect spoken in Iraq. Sometimes I’ll ask the coaches, or the medical staff, to teach me words and phrases. I’ll be receiving treatment and I’ll ask how to say something like bird or How are you?
And my transition has not only involved a new language, but also a new culture.
“You Americans, you move too fast,” one of my teammates told me early on with a chuckle.
In the Middle East, they move at a pace that would make Americans cringe. It’s said the Iraqi man is a comfortable lazy man. Not lazy how we use it in America, but just … laid back. Wearing his dishdasha and his sandals, drinking his tea and laughing.
Maybe that’s why it took two years for my passport to arrive…
And I guess it’s no surprise that this laid-back approach was on display from the moment I joined the national team. For example, in MLS, we have a set time for all of our team meetings. Everything runs like clockwork. When I’m on national team duty, though, things are a bit different. It may say 7:00 a.m. on the itinerary, but if you arrive at that time … there’s a chance no one is going to be there. You’ll go back to your hotel room for a nap and then your phone will ring a little while later.
“Justin, there is a meeting in 10 minutes,” the staff member will say. So that’s basically how it works.
Then there’s the food.
When I’m playing in MLS, I’m on a strict keto diet, but when I’m eating with the national team the meals include lots of bread and rice. One time we were walking through a mall in Saudi Arabia, and the entire team just piled into a McDonald’s. I watched in disbelief as these professional athletes chowed down on french fries and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.
On the pitch, things definitely felt jarring at first, too. I could spend hours discussing the differences between playing football with my club team and the national team. But mainly it’s just much more physical. These guys are hitting hard and pulling out two-footed tackles … and that’s just during the training sessions with my teammates.
Even my name on the line-up is different — Justin Hikmat Azeez. That’s the name on my Iraqi passport. It’s my first name, then my father’s name, followed by his father’s name.
Everything, really, is different. And during my first year and a half with the team, there were definitely times when the contrast became frustrating and overwhelming.
I’d call my mother constantly to talk about my difficulty adjusting, in the hopes of finding a solution. But ultimately I tried to just embrace everything and enjoy the experience. Whenever things got especially tough, though, I’d just remind myself of my first trip away with the team, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
We’d drive to training on a big team bus, and we’d often have fans banging on the side, waving, trying to get us to wave back. On this one particular day, my gaze lifted up and I saw a bunch of kids playing soccer in the street.
They had no shoes, their ball was misshapen, but they were happy. You could see it on their faces.
In that moment I saw myself back in Michigan, running around with my friends and family at the Shelby Soccer City dome. I thought of how fortunate I was back then to have nice cleats and a safe place to play. I also recalled the vision of the Middle East that my mother had described from her memories. I grew up worlds apart from these children, but the game had united us.
Our love for soccer was a common bond, and I thought about what playing for Iraq could do for the children there, the happiness it could bring them. I became energized. It was an emotional experience.
Something was missing, though. And I knew it.
I had still never actually been to Iraq.
The majority of my social media following hails from Iraq, and I’d sometimes see Iraqi flags during road games while playing in MLS — up in Montreal, or Toronto, and in so many other places — but many Iraqis had never seen me play in person.
The national team, at least during my time with them, had played every home match on foreign soil due to safety concerns. That changed a few months ago.
I received a call from the federation in October telling me there was going to be a friendly against Kenya in Iraq, and that I’d been selected to play.
I instantly called my parents. They cry watching me play for the national team sometimes. It fills them with so much pride to see their son represent their home country. I assumed they’d be thrilled.
“You can’t go,” my mother told me. “It will be too dangerous.”
She thought that as a Chaldean Catholic, and an American, I would have a target on my back. It was never about the Iraqi people, it was about going to a place where there are groups that don’t respect Americans, and me being a kind of figurehead. I understood that.
“I have to go, though” I told her. “This is a chance I may not get again.”
I take no pride in saying there were raised voices between my mother and I. It got heated. But she saw I had such a heavy heart when she said I couldn’t go.
I have the utmost respect for my parents. I grew up following their rules, and they shaped me into the person I am today. At the same time, I’m a grown man trying to forge my own path in this world.
I felt like I’d be a coward if I professed to love this country so much but wouldn’t travel there to play a game when I had the chance. I mean, there’s a brand new football stadium that just went up in Iraq, and the people there have been waiting to see me to play since I joined the team, and I’m going to say no?
The trip, I told my mother, would be for me, and for my family, but also for all the people who have left supportive messages on Twitter and Facebook over the years, and those who brought Iraqi flags to my games. It would also be about bringing some joy to the Iraqi people.
I had to go.
Our team is nicknamed the Lions of Mesopotamia, and as we stood on that field in Basra, I felt like one for the first time.
The game was to be played in the southeastern part of Iraq, in the city of Basra. I remember the plane starting its descent, and staring out the window at all those flat roofs from my mother’s stories. This was the first time seeing the beauty of Iraq in person. It took my breath away.
Once we touched down, we were largely confined to our hotel, but I was still able to visit a church and have my photo taken with a Chaldean priest.
I thought of how many Chaldeans back home in Michigan and across the United States never get to visit Iraq, and thanks to the sport of soccer … there I was.
I had a GoPro camera with me for the whole trip. I wanted to remember every second, no detail felt insignificant. The only problem was that, for much of the time, my hand was trembling because I was so overcome with emotion. So the footage from the GoPro is all shaky. I constantly felt this swirling mix of anticipation and excitement in the pit of my stomach as I explored Basra and learned more of my heritage.
Those same emotions stirred in me again at the Basra Sports City stadium when Iraq’s national anthem began playing before kick-off.
I suddenly understood what was missing inside of me, what I’d been yearning for.
It was the first time I could sing that anthem surrounded by the fans who live and breathe for the national team. And I didn’t just see one Iraqi flag as I had during my club games, I saw dozens and dozens, as well as scarves decked out in our colors of red, black and white. As I sang, I could hear thousands of others singing with pride and passion.
Our team is nicknamed the Lions of Mesopotamia, and as we stood on that field in Basra, I felt like one for the first time.
I am American, of course, and I’m proud to say that, but in that moment I could only think of Iraq and its people.
We ended up winning that game 2–1, but before the final whistle blew, in the 81st minute, I was substituted out to a standing ovation. I still get chills when I think about that moment. It’s one that will stay with me until my dying day. Right then, the Iraqi people gave something almost indescribable back to me. I felt more complete, and more proud, than I ever have in my entire life.
As I was walking off the pitch, I couldn’t help thinking back to that Facebook message from five years ago. The question it posed to me — “Are you Iraqi?” — is such a simple one on its face, but it’s also complicated, too.
And as I looked up into the crowd, the answer I replied with in 2013 was one that I felt like shouting out with all the energy in my body, loud enough for every fan in that stadium to hear.
Am I Iraqi?
“Yes, I am!”