LONDON: Brwa Nouri might not yet be well known among European football fans, but the Iraqi midfielder is central to one of the continent’s greatest sporting stories of modern times: The remarkable rise of Sweden’s Ostersunds FK.
Next week, Nouri will captain the provincial outfit as they host Premier League heavyweights Arsenal in the Europa League Round of 32. Few will give Ostersunds much chance of getting past Peter Cech and Co, but having upset the odds to become the first Swedish team in a decade to reach the knockout rounds of European competition, Nouri is unfazed about lining up against some of his soccer heroes.
“These are players you look at every Saturday, so you know them and now we get the chance to play face to face, it’s a dream come true,” Nouri, 31, told Arab News in an exclusive interview.
“But when the referee blows his whistle, it’s a game, it’s a ball and it’s a pitch and you gotta fight and not think about that.”
Temperatures for the evening kick-off at the 8,466-capacity Jämtkraft Arena will likely be around minus 12 degrees Celsius, conditions that Arsenal’s multimillionaires will likely find uncomfortable, yet Nouri was unsure if playing at home first will be advantageous.
“We hate it (too),” said Nouri.
“I’m not used to playing these home and away ties. For us, it’s just a great opportunity. There’s gonna be an incredible atmosphere.”
The game will be only Ostersunds’ second of 2018 following today’s Cup match against Trelleborg, but Nouri was philosophical about his team’s probable lack of match sharpness.
“It’s not the best thing we aren’t midway in the season, but we’ll be preparing well and had some games at our (Spanish training) camp against local teams and we’ll have a competitive game before, so it’s nothing really to complain about,” he said.
Nouri was born to Iraqi Kurdish parents in Iran, the family fleeing from the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah around the time of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign, which murdered at least 100,000 Iraqi Kurds.
The family then reached Sweden when Nouri was an infant. He signed as a youngster to Stockholm giants AIK and made a handful of senior appearances for the club as well as winning international caps for Sweden at under-17 and under-19 level.
A precociously talented attacking midfielder, he gained valuable experience on loan at lower- league clubs and a promising career beckoned, but off-field problems led AIK to release Nouri.
He then signed for Dalkurd FF in 2009, a club founded just five years earlier by members of the Kurdish diaspora and which was then in Sweden’s fourth tier. Nouri helped the club win promotion in his first season and averaged a goal roughly every three games during his five-year stint there.
Those achievements drew the attention of Graham Potter, the English coach of Ostersunds FK. Appointed for the 2011 season with the club languishing in Sweden’s fourth division, Potter had enjoyed a nomadic career as a full-back, mostly in England’s lower leagues before retiring in 2005 to complete university studies in social sciences, emotional intelligence and leadership.
Those skills proved vital as he recruited an unlikely band of players for Ostersunds, located in a snow-swept town of 50,000 inhabitants 550 kilometers north of Stockholm that drew crowds of around 1,000 to its home matches.
Often from immigrant backgrounds and with a point to prove after failing to make it at bigger clubs, Potter galvanized his players to extraordinary effect, winning successive promotions in his first two seasons in charge.
Nouri joined Ostersunds for the team’s debut season in the second tier in 2014. A third promotion followed in 2015 to take Ostersunds into the top flight as Potter converted Nouri to a holding midfielder to brilliant effect.
Silverware soon followed as Nouri lifted the 2016-17 Swedish Cup following Ostersunds’ 4-1 hammering of 13-time national champions Norrköping in the final. He was effusive in his praise for Potter, who has spent just €75,000 ($91,000) on transfers, according to transfermrkt.com, roughly what Arsenal’s Mesut Özil earns over a long weekend.
“For me he’s fundamental, for the team he’s fundamental, for the club he’s fundamental,” said Nouri.
“He’s the heart and the core of the club. He’s built everything, the environment, the philosophy, the way he sees things and has brought people and characters that will benefit him and benefit us. I’m really happy to work with him and learn a lot.”
Ostersunds’ cup victory earned them a Europa League second-qualifying-round tie against Turkey’s Galatasary and a 2-0 home victory in the first leg gave Ostersunds hope of securing an upset, despite what awaited them in Istanbul.
“After we won the first game it was like ‘OK, we might do something here,’” Nouri said.
“We went to play at probably the most horrible environment in all European football, which for a small team like us was amazing.”
Before the tie, Nouri received threats on social media and in Istanbul the home crowd taunted him for being a Kurd, but he was unfazed, slotting home a 60th-minute penalty to give Ostersunds an unassailable 3-0 aggregate lead.
Recalling the moments before he struck that spot kick, Nouri said: “I was thinking not to think, because if I started to think then maybe I’d miss this, then they’d get energy and get a goal and it’s not good. I was just pretty sure that I was gonna make the shot.”
He also scored away to Greece’s PAOK in another qualifier as the club reached the tournament group stage and then netted again in a 1-0 home win over Hertha Berlin as Ostersunds finished joint top in their section alongside Spain’s Athletic Bilbao.
“It’s hard to compare,” said Nouri when asked if that goal in Istanbul was his favorite moment of Ostersunds’ European run.
“Every goal I scored was an incredible feeling, but if I had to say something, probably the Galatasaray meant the most, because it was a big game, it was just incredible. The volume of the crowd was so intense that you felt it inside your core, so to make them quiet was quite a feeling.”
Having finished fifth last year in their second season in Sweden’s top flight, Nouri believes Ostersunds can be league champions this term.
“Our aim is to win. That’s our potential. We won’t settle until we do, and then when we’ve done it we wanna do it again,” added Nouri.
“Like right now, we qualified for the Europa League, we went through to last 32, which is amazing, but the bigger dream is to win the league, play in the Champions League. That’s what we’re working for. Even though we’re playing Arsenal, and we’re really satisfied, we’re not finished.”
‘IT WAS LIKE NOTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE’ — NOURI’S IRAQ EXPERIENCE
Bwra Nouri is among 15 players from Iraq’s diaspora who were spotted by a fans’ website and brought to the attention of the national team, making his international debut in a 0-0 draw against Jordan in 2016.
Last year, FIFA again permitted Iraq to host home friendly internationals and Nouri scored in the country’s second game since the ban was lifted, a 2-1 victory over Kenya in Basra in front of nearly 30,000 ecstatic supporters.
“It was like nothing you can imagine, incredible to play in your home country, in front of the home fans for the first time,” said Nouri. “Then to get the chance to score a goal was a feeling I can’t really explain. I wish more of those kinds of opportunities happen for me.”
Iraq were unbeaten in the recent Gulf Cup, exiting on penalties in the semifinals to the UAE, and took eight points from their last five World Cup 2018 qualifiers against Asian heavyweights Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia, plus Thailand and the UAE. Those results along with the appointment of the widely admired Basim Qasim as coach, have made fans and players hopeful of Iraq going far in next January’s Asian Cup.
“We need consistency, we need him (Qasim) to be there for a while, to work with the group, to get to know the players and for us to learn how to play (his style),” said Nouri. “We have a good team with a lot of good players. If we keep the same coach, we can build a foundation and the days to come might be very positive for Iraq.”
Nouri does not speak Arabic, but said it had been straightforward to assimilate into the Iraqi squad where other foreign-based players include US-based playmaker Justin Meram, who was born in Michigan to Iraqi Chaldean parents.
“There’s diversity in Iraq, so I didn’t think it was hard,” said Nouri. “My upbringing is Sweden, so there are some differences, but to integrate with the players, with the team, no problem at all.”