The first time Yousif Al Khafajy and I spoke was just ahead of the 2018 World Cup. At hello, we immediately started ruing Iraq’s missed opportunity to qualify to the big tournament, one that was later played and won by a spirited French side, overflowing with mostly immigrant talent.
Both being die hard fans of the beautiful game, we knew the immensity of having to wait another four years to watch the Lions of Mesopotamia (Iraq’s footie moniker) on the big stage. The Iraqis had qualified only once to the World Cup before, in 1986, more than 30 years ago.
Despite the lack of international success, for generations of Iraqis that have had to endure watching the very fabric of their identity torn into shreds, football has offered an inclusive platform for people of every persuasion to stand behind a common cause – albeit one that revolves around kicking a ball into a net within the span of ninety minutes.
So, cliche notwithstanding, football is more than just a game.
I had called Yousif that day to try and better understand his enigmatic involvement in football. As a 25 year old with no playing, management or coaching experience, Yousif had managed to establish himself as a power broker in the Iraqi setup. He was a kingmaker of sorts, influencing who makes it onto the national team and who doesn’t. I wanted to know how that well spoken shy guy on the phone was on the tip of the tongue of every player and manager in the country.
It felt that Yousif was living every football fan’s dream – or mine at least – going from couch to coach without setting a foot in an Iraqi dressing room or having to lace up any boots. I had to put my finger on what I was missing out on.
Yousif’s story began in 2011, when he and a group of friends wove a small thread in an online discussion forum to inquire about players of Iraqi origin that were playing in European leagues. With the Iraq diaspora being so large, it was inevitable that there would be players of Iraqi origin playing professionally in those leagues.
Yousif wanted to find them, scope them out, shed light on them and see whether any of them were good enough to play for the national team. It was his way of improving Iraq’s national team by infusing players that were playing and training in leagues that were of higher quality than Iraq’s domestic competition.
“We would look through the rosters of European clubs, especially in those countries where Iraqi communities were prevalent, and try and guess from players’ names, or the way they looked whether they were Iraqi or not, and we would contact them, mostly through Facebook Messenger,” Yousif explains the scouting process to me.
“We would get in touch with these players and see whether they wanted to play for the Iraqi national team. Some of the players initially resisted the idea, citing instability and safety concerns back home, but when we stressed the importance of international football to a player’s career, our invitation piqued their interest,” he adds.
But for Yousif, the work he was doing was always bigger than football, “Even though I moved to Dubai when I was seven years old, Iraq has always been a huge part of my identity and life. I have always loved Iraq, its culture, history and, ofcourse, its football. I wanted to show Iraq in its truest form – a country filled with talent and perseverance – and not just a helpless victim of war and destruction.”
Yousif was single handedly building a bridge between the Diaspora and the playing fields of Iraq, all in the hopes that he could one day fulfil an entire nation’s dream – watching their team play in the World Cup.
One of the players Yousif tracked down was Brwa Nouri – an Iraqi player from Kurdish origins that moved to Sweden as a young child. Brwa was a talented player that eventually became the first Iraqi player in the Europa League with his side Ostersunds FK, and did indeed represent Iraq at the senior level having played for Sweden’s youth teams all his life. In fact, Brwa scored on his debut.
“Up until we got in touch with Brwa, most people in Sweden thought he was Iranian or Syrian. Through our efforts, people in the footballing world were now coming to realize how many Iraqi players there were in European leagues,” says Yousif, his pride beaming through my phone’s speaker.
In a matter of years, Yousif would change the face of Iraqi football. When the national team would line up for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, some of the squad’s most key players were discovered by none other than Yousif himself. Ahmed Yasin, who moved to Sweden from Baghdad at the age of one, Osama Rashid, a Dutch Iraqi, Yaser Kasim, who arrived in England via Jordan with his family as a young child and American born Justin Meriam were all critical parts of Iraq’s success in the tournament – reaching the semi-final before bowing out to the mighty South Koreans.
I wanted to hear the impact Yousif’s work from the players themselves. I reached out to Ahmed Yasin via WhatsApp where he emphatically confirmed, “Yousif was the first person to connect me to the Iraqi national team. He would put together YouTube videos of me in action and share them with the Iraqi Football Association. Once they saw me play, they invited me to Iraq. Without him, I would have probably never been able to play for my country.”
The astronomical rise of Yousif’s relevance to Iraqi football is undeniable. His Facebook page, dedicated to the news of Iraqi players plying their craft abroad has a staggering 1.6 million followers, attracting endorsements from the region’s biggest companies.
“When we first started, no one would pay us any attention. Now, through the popularity of our website and Facebook pages, we are seen as a reliable scouting platform for the national team,” Yousif says this to me with a palpable hint of disbelief in his voice.
But this ability to mould the national team’s lineup hasn’t come without adversity. Some locally based players, including the iconic Younis Mahmoud, have criticized the influence Yousif has, attributing his influence to the power of social media.
His critics have said that this type of digital influence pressures national team coaches to include players recommended by Yousif out of fear from public outcry if they don’t. Some players resent the attention that foreign based players get at the cost of Iraq based players, many of whom have to play the beautiful game under much more difficult circumstances, at times taking to the field with their lives on the line.
“In any work you do, you can’t make everyone happy. In football in particular, there are players, fans, coaches, administrators that don’t like the extra competition,” Yousif answers calmly when I prod him about some of the criticism that has come his way.
“Doing what I did as a 17 year old kid, I must have be doing something right. Imagine watching Ahmed Yasin, a player we discovered, taking to the pitch for Iraq against Japan in a World Cup qualifier,” before conceding, “I try to turn a blind eye to it but sometimes it hurts.”
In response to the accusation that he perpetuates an artificial dichotomy between local and foreign based players, he says, “The foreign based players are not necessarily more talented than the ones based in Iraq, but they are playing in a more competitive league and training in a better professional setting. These are facts.”
The differences in facilities, professionalism, transparency between the Iraqi professional league and its European counterparts is oceanic, and could be the reason behind varying performances from the foreign based players. Not all the Iraqi players that have been scouted from Europe have shined with the Iraqi national team.
The domestic league in Iraq is rife with problems ranging from obscene mismanagement to outright corruption, reflecting the wider state of affairs in a country that is ravaged by a predatory government. From the football pitch to the classroom, from the hospital ward to the housing project, the rotten stench of nepotism and incompetency is overpowering, and football is no exception. For Yousif, bringing in Iraqi talent from the outside is a breath of fresh air in this otherwise suffocating environment.
“Just because these players left Iraq, doesn’t make them any less Iraqi than those that are based inside the country,” says Yousif emphatically, echoing a sentiment shared by millions of Iraqis that live outside the geographical confines of the country, who despite the distance live and breath Iraq everyday.
“They hear about Iraq from their families, and they are honored to represent their countries, and we are honored to be able to fulfill that dream for them,” Yousif is unequivocal about the impact his work has on these players, and is a firm believer that they bring tremendous added value to the team.
The strengthening of the relationship between Iraqi football and European leagues has also increased exposure to players coming out of Iraq. Most notably, Ali Adnan, the dynamic left back, is now in his third year in Italy’s Serie A, recognized as one of the most prestigious competitions worldwide. As a result, Yousif’s website is now an established media platform in Iraq, featuring all Iraqi players that play abroad and not just those that his team has scouted.
The global relationships with Iraqi football talent that Yousif has built are so valuable that the Iraqi Football Federation recently created an official committee to facilitate the recruitment of foreign based players to the national team and included none other than Yousif himself along with another member of his team, as permanent members.
“I’d love to see the players that we’ve scouted playing a part in Iraq winning the 2019 Asian Cup. But the ultimate dream for me and everyone involved is seeing Iraq in the 2022 World Cup,” Yousif’s words fill the phone call with hope.
Four years separate us from the next World Cup. Will Yousif’s ambitious project be able to overcome a mountain of obstacles and bring joy to millions or will his efforts be consumed by the insatiable appetite of destruction? Regardless of the result, Yousif will always be known as the young man who took on the footballing world all on his own.