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.
“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.
“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.”