Amro chats with Iraq & Swindon star Yaser Kasim about Iraq’s recent Asian Cup run, as well as his hopes and aspirations with his national side & his club.
It had been 16 years since he had left Al Karrada district in Baghdad. Yaser had spent his first six years in the ethnically mixed area of the city, which is flanked by the Tigris river on both sides. A historic peninsula within a city that was once the centre of the world. His countrymen filling the gahawi (cafes) of Baghdad on 5th March 2014 were there to watch their team in a do or die encounter against China. What they didn’t anticipate was the birth of a new star for the Lions of Mesopotamia. One that was made in Baghdad, but moulded in far away London.
The approach from the Iraqi FA to join the Iraqi national team had been rebuffed before by Yaser, who had been keen to focus on his club football with Swindon Town instead. “They called me earlier, but I wanted to stamp my authority at the club [Swindon], so I couldn’t go out the first time they called me against Saudi Arabia [earlier on in the qualification campaign], and I knew the organisation and the way they deal with things isn’t necessarily proper with the Iraq national team”. But this game was different, the stakes were extremely high, nerves, pessimism and hope swirled around Iraqi football. A place in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia was on the line, and it was inconceivable to the fans that Iraq should not make it.
Did this influence his decision to join up with the team? “It was the last game, and we had to win to go through, and I thought I really wanted to be a part of the team that got to the Asian Cup so I went out there [to Dubai], the pressure was on but we wanted it so much” Iraq went on to beat China 3-1 in that game and qualify for the Asian Cup, with Yaser putting in a performance worthy of cementing his place as a starter under both Hakim Shaker & Radhi Shneishel since then. ” We were so on it, you know and we wanted to get to the Asian Cup so badly, we scored a few goals. Things went our way”.
In the history of Iraq’s Asian Cup entries, they had never once failed to qualify for the tournament, an incredible record considering the circumstances of the country over the last few decades. “I didn’t know that! I knew the pressure of the match, but why let it get to that stage?” He says incredulously. Yaser is honest in his analysis of the Iraqi FA, and the passion he exudes when talking about the state of the game in Iraq and the way in which it is run is refreshing “The fans understand what’s right and wrong, it’s only fair to them that we are all accountable and do things the right way to try and progress Iraqi football”.
His fan like candour is a rare trait amongst footballers, and there is no hint of self interest when we explore the FA’s role in Iraqi football. At the end of the Gulf Cup he was forced to re-book his own tickets back to London from Riyadh after the FA chose the cheaper option which involved a lengthy transit. Yaser had a game to attend with his club, who had kindly agreed to let him join up with his national side for a tournament which lies outwith FIFA dates, and is not FIFA sanctioned. This is just one of the many stories you hear about during every gathering of the Iraqi national team. From cheap kits, to players paying their own way, and even some of the more senior players giving the younger ones spending money on their days off during training camps. Yaser’s discipline and commitment to the Iraqi cause on and off the pitch is intense. I don’t get any sense of such events putting him off representing the homeland in our conversation.
The memory of the Gulf Cup fiasco in November 2014 is a painful one he explains. There was much publicised criticism of former Iraq Coach Hakim Shaker but the sheer chaos is evident when we discuss the hugely sub par performance of the Iraq side in the 2014 tournament two months before the Asian Cup. “The situation at the Gulf Cup wasn’t as professional. I’ve always said, if you get to the game and there’s certain problems, major problems, that means during the training and the time leading up to the games you’ve done something wrong. It’s too late, it’s like a boxer going into the ring and he can only fight three rounds of the 12, he’s got no stamina, his technique is poor, he’s going to get knocked out, it’s because he hasn’t trained properly. So I think that’s one of the main things, time was wasted at that tournament”.
The abysmal performance in that Gulf Cup tournament paved the way for change, brought on by a vocal Iraqi fan base with new tools at their disposal to make their displeasure heard. Social networking sites such as Facebook & Twitter, along with a variety of television channels who are not afraid to speak their minds means the FA can no longer ignore the cries after a poor tournament or a sub par preparation. Radhi Shneishel was drafted in just weeks before the tournament with a simple task; get Iraq out of the group stage to avoid embarrassment on the continental stage. He managed that, and went a step further too, making it to the Semi Final stage.
“Now we have this new coach and he’s just brought a bit of calmness, a bit of professionalism and he wants a style of football that’s [based on] passing. But he also knew that’s it’s such a short amount of time, so he couldn’t really bring his philosophy to the forefront, sometimes you can’t take as much risk with a team that’s been training for 15-20 days. It’s different from a team who’s been training for two years under a philosophy. We have to understand that we can’t be as good as we’d like to be, so maybe once or twice go long and not play out [from the back] and take as much risk. I prefer us to play out from the back, control the game, short passing, a lot of thinking tactically, and to utilise players who have a lot of technical ability. But you don’t get that over 20 days, you get that over a year or two. That’s why I’m so excited about the future, because in 20 days we’ve achieved something that I’m very proud of, imagine in two years!”
Radhi Shneishel is a manager that commands respect, along with his support staff, which includes Yahya Alwan, Nazar Ashraf & Bassil Gorges, each with their own special history in Iraqi football. “They command respect, but you have to give them respect because of the way they conduct themselves and the way they take training. It’s so much better than before. The problem is you think it’s amazing, because before it was so bad you know what I mean?” He laughs heartily.”But that’s the standard it should be and that’s the standard we need. If training is at 7.30 you have to be there, you have to be five minutes early for meetings, everything is on time. That’s just what I’m used to. It’s professional”.
Radhi’s coaching tactics also impress the Swindon man. Yaser speaks highly of their first team coach at Swindon, Luke Williams, who preaches a tiki-taka inspired style of play which has brought admiration from the players at the English club, and he sees parallels with Radhi’s coaching: “Here [at Swindon] we have one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with [Luke Williams], we watch a lot of DVDs, we go in depth into each game every Saturday, so I’ve learnt, and when I’ve gone there into the training [with the national team] and Radhi is doing certain things. I look at him and go wow!! Some of the things we’re doing back here at Swindon. I’m sure certain European coaches do it, because things get passed down. For example Guardiola does a certain training session with Bayern Munich and it gets taped, people see that and pass it on, and he has that and he showed us a few videos during the tournament”.
Shneishel’s guardianship of the Lions of Mesopotamia was a loan from his club Qatar SC, with whom he has now returned to resume the season which ends in May. Whether or not he will be the man to lead Iraq into the upcoming World Cup qualifiers remains to be seen. What is patently clear, however, is that the players trust this manager, and he generally has the backing of the Iraqi fans.
The step up from League 1 football with Swindon to the international stage is not lost on the level headed Yaser. He heaps praise on the more organised teams Iraq faced during the Asian Cup, particularly Japan, and also Iran. He is less forgiving in his review of Jordan who he was not impressed by. But along with fellow team mate Massimo Luongo, Yaser handled the step up in almost effortless style. Of his Iraqi team mates, we discuss fellow midfielder Saad Abdulameer whom he holds in high regard “I always say he’s probably the best player for us, he was trying so hard to make us play, he was never scared, never hid, he did a lot of the legwork. I was talking to him a lot and we were talking to each other about how to play and I think the more we will play together the better we will become.”
He also has a huge admiration for Younis Mahmoud. Having seen him lead Iraq to the legendary Asian Cup victory in 2007, Yaser was out celebrating that special night eight years ago in the streets of London as a youngster, and he exudes admiration when talking about a boyhood hero: “He’s a great guy, he’s done so well for Iraqi football. You have to respect the guy a lot, I always appreciated being around him because he understands so much and he has this calming influence on the team. Whenever there’s a problem off the pitch, if you go to him he’s always got the right advice, and on the pitch he could see so much”. Whether or not Kasim will reach the heights of Mahmoud in his own journey through the footballing world remains to be seen, but the trajectory he is on is promising.
Playing football outside the family apartment on the hot tarmac of Baghdad’s streets was how it began for Yaser, like it does for many Iraqi footballers. But his story is very different from there on, he moved to England via Jordan, and it was on the streets and sports centres of London where his football really developed. His father had wanted him to play Tennis, like his brother and sister before him, but his love of football was telling. It also helped that football was a far less costly sport to undertake. “You have a ball, you have a wall or goal and that’s it!” He’d wait outside West London’s sports centres all day at the weekends, waiting for a game in which the teams weren’t level so he could join in. “I’d ask them and go “you guys have five versus six do you want me to join?” I’d do that from 12/13 playing against men, you know they’d be doing it for fun, but for me it was a challenge and I loved it. I was always just doing that bit better and then when I got into Tottenham it got a little bit structured”.
He is currently pushing for promotion to the Championship with Swindon, but where does he see himself in the future? “At the moment I’m with Swindon and I’ll be with Swindon the next few months until the summer, we’re going to try to get to the championship” I point out they hopefully will. “Aha that’s it! I’m always saying when we will, not if, because it’s very important I’d love to win promotion with the club, but really I very much enjoy this project with Swindon at present, you never know whats going to happen in the summer. There was interest towards the end of the window here after the Asian Cup”. I ask for specific clubs or leagues to be named. “Not any names!”He laughs knowingly. “There was interest in England and in the Gulf region. So you know obviously that opens up the world market to you when you play at International level but now I just want to play and do well and win promotion and then we’ll see”.
The word challenge is repeated time and again during our discussions. It showcases the drive the player has to better himself and help his national team to improve. His drive and ambition is matched by only his love and admiration for the Iraqi fans. “Oh it’s crazy, it’s crazy! The love they had!” His voice crackles with emotion. “When I play football I try not to get too, emotional, so not too up for it, not too down, or depressed if things go wrong, you know? I don’t necessarily connect with the fans to a level where I show my personality, I want to keep myself to myself, I play my football on the pitch, so I don’t want things to influence my thinking. But you can’t do that with the Iraqi fans! there’s just so much love! They’re so nice, they want to see you, they want to hug you, they just want you to do well. They are just always backing you. International football is never going to be the same as club football because you have an affinity to your country. Even more they’ve shown me sometimes you have to let in the fans to your heart because their love is so strong”
Iraq have largely played their “home” games in qualifiers at neutral territory since the 1980s, with only a handful of notable exceptions. It’s a fact often ignored by pundits and observers of the game, but it affects Iraq hugely in long qualifying campaigns, such as the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
“I would love to play at home, it would be unbelievable! The fans would be just…” There is a pause “I mean lets not talk about a 12th man, it would be like 14th or 15th man.” He recounts watching a video of the new stadium at Basra sports city “It was dark [due to a power cut] and they put all their phones on and they started chanting, it sent shivers down my spine! Imagine playing in that, it’d be amazing. Especially after this tournament seeing the love and support of the fans. It would bring such a big smile to my face, because like you said people do gloss over it. Why are we playing in Dubai when we don’t get as many fans first of all? And it just doesn’t feel like home”.
The passion and pride on show from the Iraqi expats in Australia during the Asian Cup has obviously left a lasting impression. Having only visited Iraq twice, once for a training camp in Arbil, and another to sort out his passport application in Baghdad, Yaser is keen to return, and he has a visit lined up this summer. But what about future goals in the country?
“Personally I want to do things properly so seeing certain things I could do some good back home and I will do some good back home because it’s very important-its where I come from and I want to give back to the people so in a certain capacity I will do that. I don’t know about living there, depending on how it is as a country in the future, but definitely helping the people back there.”
For now at least, hope that Iraq can make a second appearance at the World Cup is high, their first since 1986 in Mexico, but it is hope tinged with cynicism towards the FA. They certainly have the talent at their disposal. However, will the preparation match that? “You know the Iraqi players, they’re so passionate, they have so much heart. If you can direct that energy properly you can achieve anything.”