‘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.”


Felipe Massa ready for Formula E challenge around the streets of Riyadh

Updated 25 September 2018
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Felipe Massa ready for Formula E challenge around the streets of Riyadh

  • Not only will the December date mark the Kingdom’s entry into Formula E, but it will also mark Massa’s debut
  • Massa called the Formula E vehicles “the car of the next generation”

Noor Nugali Riyadh: Felipe Massa cannot wait to get behind the wheel of a Formula E car and jumpstart his new career when the spectacle of speed storms into Riyadh for the season opener on Dec. 15.
The Saudi Arabia capital was named as the newest stopping point for the sport in May, with it being the first race of a 13-race season, which sees the electric-powered cars tackle street circuits across the globe.
Not only will the December date mark the Kingdom’s entry into Formula E, but it will also mark Massa’s debut, having left the Formula One paddock for the growing sport. And the 37-year-old told Arab News he is excited about the prospect of tackling the streets of Ad Diriyah, the oldest part of the capital, in one of the electrically powered speed machines.
“I am ready for the race. It’s a fantastic feeling driving around the city, the town, it’s historical. It will be a big event,” Massa said at press conference to announce Saudi Arabian Airlines’ new long-term partnership as official airline partner of the all-electric series.
“I’m really happy to be a part of this new challenge for my career. In a new place and country, it’s motivating.”
Having won 11 Grands Prix during an illustrious career in F1, during which time he raced for Ferrari, some might think Massa would not be daunted by the move to Formula E. The Brazilian, however, is taking nothing for granted.
“It’s a big challenge for me to change categories, to Formula E,” he said, having got a chance to put some early practice in as he took a Gen2 car around the streets of the capital.
“Learning everything is a challenge. It’s different cars, different tracks and a different way of driving. I need to learn and grow to understand but I like new challenges.”
Massa called the Formula E vehicles “the car of the next generation” and it is hoped that the Ad Diriyah race helps the changing face of Saudi Arabia by inspiring more women to get behind the wheel in the Kingdom — something not lost on Massa.
“I heard that women are driving (in Saudi Arabia) now and that’s fantastic — hopefully in the future there will female racers,” he said.
“We are racing in a country (whose main export is oil), and we are racing with electric cars. I think it shows that this country wants to change its mentality and its thinking of the future. It’s really positive and I’m so happy to be a part of this.”
Thanks to the Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, the Middle East has long been associated with motorsport, and it is well known that the region is awash with petrolheads. The Riyadh Formula E race, however, will be international motorsport’s first move into Saudi Arabia.
But rather than look to bring F1 to the country his Abdul Aziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal, vice-chair of the General Sports Authority, revealed that Formula E was the only format they wanted to see in the capital.
“This is a truly game-changing moment for Saudi Arabia and one that we can share with the world,” he said. “It is very fitting that the such a futuristic and sustainable sport as Formula E is pointing to the future direction of our country.
“Saudi Arabia is home to literally millions of passionate young fans of motorsport, many of whom simply cannot believe that Felipe Massa took the Gen2 car around the streets of the capital today and that they now have a ‘home race’ on the Formula E calendar. So already the excitement is building, especially since we’re adding live music concerts to the weekend line-up.”
The track Massa and Co. will be tackling this December was revealed at the press conference. At 1.76 miles long, the first road circuit in the Middle East features 21 corners, a number of which are long flowing ones taken at high speed. It is hoped that the race will get both Saudi Arabia’s entry to the sport and the season itself off to a spectacular start, and in doing so inspire a new generation of speed demons.
Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal Al-Saud, president of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, said: “Something we haven’t announced yet, is that there will be a support race for Formula E.
“It’s the Jaguar I-Pace trophy, it will race around the world with the Formula E circuit.
“Saudi Arabia will participate in that championship as a national team with two Saudi Arabian drivers and we will announce the names soon.”