‘Iraq football fans are crazy for the game’: Yaser Kasim

Yaser Kasim made a triumphant return to Iraq duty in Basra. (AFP)
Updated 04 March 2018
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‘Iraq football fans are crazy for the game’: Yaser Kasim

BASRA: Yaser Kasim adjusts his feet, grins broadly and stares down the camera lens.
It is midnight in Basra and he has just stopped for a selfie. Again. On the short walk from the Mnawi Hotel’s dining room to the lobby, he is met every few steps by a fan seeking a photographic memento.
“We’d better do the interview upstairs,” he smiles. “Otherwise it could take a while.”
Kasim plays his club football for England’s League One side Northampton Town, nearly 3,000 miles away. He has hardly played this season and it is unlikely he would be recognized walking down the high street of the rugby-mad English town.
In Iraq, however, Kasim is hero-worshipped. Since announcing himself on the international stage with a series of influential performances in the 2015 Asian Cup, the midfielder has been a firm favorite with the fans.
After a self-imposed sabbatical from the national team, Kasim, after discussions with national coach Basim Qasim (right), opted to return to the fold for Wednesday’s momentous friendly against Saudi Arabia. And for both player and fans, absence clearly made the heart grow fonder.
Iraq beat Saudi Arabia in a friendly in Basra 4-1 to the delight of the players and fans. (AP)

“Yaser, Yaser, Yaser,” the Iraqi supporters shouted as Kasim sat, seemingly rooted to the substitutes’ bench, deep into the second half. Moments later the crowd had their wish; Kasim jogged on to the pitch for his first international match on Iraqi soil.
“I have always said that the Iraqi fans are the best in the world — they are crazy for football and for the players,” Kasim told Arab News.
“I appreciate them so much and I’m humbled when they shout my name. When I come back to Iraq I get to meet a lot of people every day and you just get such a good vibe.”
Those good vibes certainly transferred to the players in Basra, a 4-1 thrashing of Saudi Arabia making a statement on the pitch, but a bigger one off it. It was the most high-profile match to be staged in Iraq for years and momentum is now building for the country to welcome back competitive internationals.
For Kasim, who has only ever played “home” matches in front of empty grounds across the world, it is an exciting prospect.
Iraq beat Saudi Arabia in a friendly in Basra 4-1 to the delight of the players and fans. (AFP)

“Just having that real home feeling is very special,” Kasim explained. “It’s a pressure that I enjoy, and I know my teammates do too. Big occasions are what you want to have as a professional footballer.
“When you compare it to playing in Dubai, or playing in Malaysia, the difference is just ridiculous. Even when it’s an important game, it is just not the same as it being in Iraq. It elevates you to another level — really, it’s amazing being out there on the pitch. I really do hope we get to play our home games here going forward.
“I think for any opposition player, too, they would love to play in front of such passionate fans. You could tell that the Saudi players appreciated how good it was in the stadium. The pitch is really good, too — it is cut well and promotes fast football.
“I truly hope that FIFA sees this game and realizes that these fans deserve to watch their team play in Iraq.”
The match in Basra was an emotional one for many of the players but it was perhaps Kasim’s veteran teammate Mahdi Karim who felt it most. The 2007 Asian Cup champion officially hung up his international boots after 17 years and more than a century of caps — receiving a standing ovation from fans as he left the pitch.
“Mahdi is a great footballer and an amazing guy. He will be massively missed. Obviously we were focused on the game but we knew Mahdi was retiring so we went out to see the fans before the match and threw some of his shirts into different corners of the ground. It was all Mahdi’s idea — a brilliant thing to do that sums up the kind of person he is.
“It’s always a loss when some of the more experienced guys leave the squad. Of course there will be a part missing in the dressing-room but it gives other people — myself included — the opportunity to stand up and take the mantle.”

A potential step up in seniority would represent another stage of self-discovery for Kasim. Every time the 26-year-old returns to Iraq it is a poignant reminder of where he comes from. Born in Baghdad, his family moved to Jordan when he was six, before settling in the UK. He may have received his football education in England, but Kasim still feels deep ties to his homeland.
“I like playing in England but it is nice to also have that background, coming from a country that has a different culture. It’s always great to come back.
“On a more personal level it is just really good that someone like me, who left Iraq at a young age, is able to come back and reconnect with my heritage. It brings out something within you as a man, a bit of maturity and cultural understanding. It goes some way to helping you feel more complete as a person.”
A first match on Iraqi soil has helped further cement that link to the country of his birth. And having witnessed the adoration of the fans in close quarters, Kasim is hungry for more.
“This occasion, obviously, will always give me happy memories of Basra. It kind of trumps everything else I’ve experienced in Iraq. Being around the people and these sort of occasions, it really helps the country move forward. You realize that officials are stepping up and doing things right. I’m hoping this is just the beginning.”


World Cup live: Portugal 1 Morocco 0

Updated 4 min 39 sec ago
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World Cup live: Portugal 1 Morocco 0

  • Cristiano Ronaldo heads in an early goal

4.16pm: SAVE! What a save that was from Patricio to prevent Younes Belhanda from finding the bottom corner with a header. that's as close as Morocco have come.

4.11pm: How long before Herve Renard sends for striker Ayoub El-Kaabi from the bench? He has 11 goals for his country and is the top-scorer in the squad. Morocco need one badly here.

4.07pm: Ronaldo may have scored the only goal but he had the third fewest touches in the first half. Only Mehdi Benatia (21) and Goncalo Guedes (19) had fewer.

4.05pm: We're back underway at the Luzhniki Stadium and Morocco need to score and avoid defeat otherwise they are out of the World Cup.

4.02pm: Random fact but Ronaldo has five hotels in Marrakech. He was certainly made to feel welcome by the Moroccons from that fifth-minute corner.

3.50pm: 37 percent of goals at this World Cup have been scored from set-pieces. 

3.46pm: "I think Morocco have dominated the ball," says BBC Sport's Kevin Kilbane. "Portugal have been dreadful."

3.45pm: It's half-time in Moscow and Portugal lead thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's fourth-minute header. 

3.42pm: Morocco's Mehdi Benatia is the first player to be booked. He is shown a yellow card for clattering into Cristiano Ronaldo.

3.37pm: Morocco are having a good go here. They've had 49 percent of the possesion and registered six shots to Portugal's four.

3.31pm

3.30pm: "There are worse teams than Morocco at the World Cup," said BBC Sport's Terry Butcher. "They may be 1-0 down and heading out of the World Cup, but there is plenty of confidence out there."

3.27pm

3.25pm: "Morocco should be pleased with how they have responded," said BBC Sport's Martin Keown. "They have not done an awful loy wrong apart from conceding that goal,"

3.21pm: Marking Ronaldo is a two-man job. Here Achraf Hakimi and Manuel Da Costa keep tabs on the Real Madrid superstar.

3.19pm: Goals are a big problem for Morocco. The only player who has more than ten international goals to his name is Ayoub El-Kaabi and he's on the bench.

3.15pm: "Morocco have got good variation from their corners," says BBC Sport's Martin Keown. 

3.12pm: Not content with scoring 44 goals in 44 games for Real Madrid this season, Ronaldo now has four in two World Cup games. He is a machine. 

3.08pm: "That is appalling marking by Morocco," said BBC Sport's Martin Keown. "You just can't give Ronaldo that amount of room."

3.06pm: GOAL. And it's Cristiano Ronaldo, who else? He steals a march from a corner and powers in a header. Worst possible start for Morocco.

3.04pm: A real positive start from Morocco. "What a start that was with 12-13 passes from Morocco," said BBC Sport pundit Terry Butcher. "Wonderful play. It all started with a ball up to Cristiano Ronaldo, who just shrugged his shoulders."

2.59pm: The size of the task facing Morocco this afternoon is demonstrated by the fact that Ronaldo has scored 33 goals in his last 23 games for club and country and has only failed to score in five of those games.

2.52pm: "The Moroccan fans are taking their seats and are already making a significant amount of noise," reports BBC Sport's Gary Flintoff. "They are dotted throughout the stadium, but there are thousands of them grouped together behind one of the goals."

2.45pm. "Ziyech is their playmaker and he's been instrumental at Ajax," said BBC Sport's Jermaine Jenas. "Technically, he's the one they need to be going through. He's got an eye for a pass and can glide past people. There are a lot of clubs looking at him. Morocco desperately need him today if they are to get anything out of the game."

2.42pm: Mexico '86 seems a long time but that is when these two last met at the World Cup. The Atlas Lions won that one 3-1. 

2.41pm: Cristiano Ronaldo needs just one goal to move outright second in the list of all-time international scorers.

2.39pm: Morocco's Mbark Boussoufa in the zone before the match at the Luzniki Stadium.

 

 

2.38pm: "It will be a different gamplan from Morocco," said BBC Sport's Kevin Kilbane. "They are going to have to play on the back foot."

2.35pm: "This Morocco side will feel they need to come out and produce a performance after their opening defeat," said BBC Sport's Jermaine Jenas. 

2.32pm: Morocco are chasing their first World Cup win since they beat Scotland 3-0 in France. Salaheddine Bassir (2) and Abdeljalil Hadda got the goals that day.

2.29pm: Cristiano Ronaldo is again partnered in attack by Goncalo Guedes, despite the Valencia forward's unimpressive form in a 3-3 draw with Spain. Joao Mario starts in midfield replacing Bruno Fernandes. 

2.28pm: Morocco coach Herve Renard has made three changes, with forward Khalid Boutaib replacing Ayoub El Kaabi, Manuel Da Costa coming in for Romain Saiss in central defense, and defender Nabil Dirar replacing winger Amine Harit.

2.14pm: Morocco need to bounce back from their agonising defeat against Iran but Portugal, and Ronaldo in particular, pose Herve Renard's men a monumental challenge at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
"We lost a battle but we haven't lost the war. We're not dead," said midfielder Faycal Fajr, one of 17 foreign-born players in Morocco's squad.

2.10pm: The surprise team news is that Nordin Amrabat has been passed fit for Morocco. He came off following a head injury against Iran and the feeling was he would not pass the concussion protocol.

2.09pm

It has not been the best World Cup so far for the Arab nations. Saudi Arabia were thrashed by Russia, Egypt lost late on to Uruguay, Morocco were floored by a sucker punch from Iran and then Egypt were beaten again, this time by Russia. But now Morocco have the chance to make up for that by pulling off the shock of all shocks against European champions Portugal. A win would go down as one of the biggest in their history and resuscitate their hopes of getting out of Group B. And you can follow our live coverage of the game at the Luzhniki Stadium right here, so stay tuned for our insight and opinion on events in Moscow.