To understand why Columbus Crew forward Justin Meram feels so excited and inspired representing a country he’s never even visited, you can start by listening to him laud his mother’s cooking.
“I know everyone will say their mom is the best but really, ask anyone. Ask anybody in our family or anybody in the neighborhood, they’ll tell you. She’s the best,” Meram said proudly.
Lamia Mansour Hormis, Meram’s mother, is one of eight children, as is her husband, Hikmat Aziz Meram.
“My family is massive. Sometimes I don’t even know some of my aunts’ names,” Meram joked.
His parents are Chaldean Christians from the Mosul area in northern Iraq. They emigrated separately to the U.S. -- the father in 1967 and the mother in 1975. They met through family connections established back home, married in their adopted country, and had four sons.
There were no subsequent trips to Iraq, but the culture never felt too far away. Justin and his three older brothers were given American names (Francis, Irvin and Jason) and spoke English at home in Macomb County, just north of Detroit. But they were raised in an area boasting “the largest Middle Eastern population outside of the Middle East,” Meram said. His parents, aunts, uncles and cousins formed part of a Michigan community of Assyrians, Arabs and other Middle Easterners numbering more than 400,000. The boys were exposed to the traditions, history, Chaldean language and, of course, the food, that defined their heritage.
Last month, shortly after Columbus was knocked out of the MLS Cup playoffs, Meram crossed the Atlantic for the first time. His trip concluded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he finally joined up with the Iraqi national team after a couple of false starts and an excruciating multi-year wait for a passport. Riyadh, which was hosting the biennial Gulf Cup of Nations, lies around 850 miles south of Mosul. But for Meram, it hit home.
“It opened my eyes and me appreciate everything. You’d see kids -- we’d be training at the stadium and right next to a 50,000-seat stadium, there’s a field of dirt with some soccer lines on it and 30 to 40 kids from Riyadh just playing and smiling. When the Iraq bus would pass through the town, by all the shops and along the streets, they’d all be outside and cheering and clapping,” Meram recalled.
Those images of simplicity and hospitality reflected the Iraq his parents described. Not the war-torn nation of the past two decades, but a place from the recent past with deep roots and quiet connections that didn’t make headlines.
“I was there for two weeks and once I got into a daily routine and we got outside a bit, it was just everything how my parents said,” he told SI.com. “Things move a lot slower than in the U.S. There’s a lot less worries. People are happy and just go about their life, at ease and at peace. Guys on the [Iraqi] team or some of the security guards would tell me, ‘You Americans move so fast.’ And I never understood that until I got there and realized that they don’t have much. Football is their everything, and I felt comfortable. Maybe it was odd -- why was it such an easy transition? But it’s my culture and fit in quickly. Nothing about it was scary.”
Meram, 26, admits that there may have been some initial skepticism among some of his new teammates. He described an awkward meeting following his late-night landing in Riyadh that left him feeling slightly intimidated. There wasn't much to say at first. From the players’ perspective, he was a competitor as well as a compatriot, and his Arabic wasn’t exactly fluent. Federation politics also can come into play whenever dual nationals are recruited. So Meram put his head down and went to work.
“Once you step inside those lines I thought, ‘They’re going to respect you,’ and I showed from the first training session that I was there to win games,” Meram said. “I’m not there for the spotlight or the newspapers or the interviews. I’m here to play and to win and I chose to play for Iraq hoping to better the country in any way possible. I was put on the all-tournament team for the first day of the Gulf Cup. They realized I can actually play! They still would make jokes about me being American, but after the training sessions and the games, the guys were extremely nice. They’d ask if I needed anything on a day-to-day basis.”
Iraq finished the tournament 0-2-1 and Meram -- or Justin Hikmat Aziz (his given name and that of his father and grandfather) according to his new passport -- started all three matches. His celebrity soared -- his Facebook followers ballooned to nearly 50,000 -- and he did enough on the field to earn his way onto coach Radhi Shenaishil’s Asian Cup squad.
Meram departed Saturday for Dubai, where Iraq will play friendlies against Kuwait (Tuesday) and Uzbekistan (Thursday and Sunday). The Lions of Mesopotamia then will fly to Australia, where they’ll face Iran on Jan. 4. Iraq’s Asian Cup campaign will kick off in Brisbane on Jan. 12 versus Jordan, then continue with group-stage games against reigning champion Japan on Jan. 16 and then Palestine four days later. The tournament will be watched by hundreds of millions.
Two months ago, Meram hadn’t been capped by any country at any level. His college career began with the Yavapai Roughriders, a community college power near Phoenix, Arizona, and concluded back home at the University of Michigan. The Crew took him in the first round of the 2011 MLS draft but he started only 24 league games across his first three seasons, scoring five goals.
To understand why Meram is so thrilled to play for a country he’s never visited, one must consider the hunger of the unheralded -- the late bloomer’s delayed gratification. Iraq may have never seemed that far away for the Merams’ youngest son, but a competition like the Asian Cup surely did. Launched in 1956, four years before it’s European counterpart, it’s a championship for more than half the planet’s population. At this time last year, Meram was coming off a one-goal, one-assist season. Then coach Gregg Berhalter arrived in Columbus, and the player found his path. Meram was starting regularly by mid-May and, deployed on the left wing in Berhalter’s 4-2-3-1 alignment, the Michigan man displayed impressive range and creativity. He was a danger from distance or on the run and tallied nine goals and five assists in 34 MLS games. The Crew qualified for the postseason for the first time in three years and Meram was awarded with a new contract.
“I needed this year and, I tell you this much, I needed Gregg Berhalter and this coaching staff. I needed coaches who understood me on a personal level and on a soccer playing level,” Meram said. “The right player with the right coach can make a world of difference.”
He was ready to take the next step. But until October, Meram wasn’t sure if he’d be able. His pursuit of an Iraqi passport actually began shortly after he turned pro, and it proved to be just as arduous as his journey on the field. He was contacted originally by Yousif Alkhafajy, a student whose personal website devoted to the Lions of Mesopotamia included information on foreign players with Iraqi heritage. Alkhafajy eventually took a job with the federation and, after drumming up Iraqi fans’ interest in the American, he prompted Meram to apply for a passport. It was far easier said than done.
“This is how my Dad says it: ‘Why would I save all the paperwork when I’m 17 years old and leaving the country? Did I really think my son would be a professional soccer player and play for the Iraqi national team,’” Meram said.
The paperwork -- more than just a passport or birth certificate was required -- remained somewhere in Mosul. And Mosul, the country’s second most-populous city, had fallen to the Islamic State. This never was a place known for prioritizing speed and efficiency (remember Meram’s description?). Now, a significant chunk of it was controlled by fanatics who probably weren’t concerned with expediting the citizenship of a soccer player from Michigan. The same tragic events that make representing Iraq such a compelling opportunity very well could have prevented him from doing so.
“At times you almost want to just give up. ‘It’s never going to happen.’ We’d hear, ‘OK, you’re all set.’ Then a month later, ‘You need this document.’ You just say, ‘Oh, my God.’ You’d get that, now you need a different passport picture than the one you sent them. Now you need the U.S. Soccer Federation to write a letter. Then they do that, but no, now you need a birth certificate from where your parents are from,” Meram said. “I don’t know the full extent of it. I just know we all felt like Tom Cruise [in Mission: Impossible].”
Berhalter interceded on Meram’s behalf with the USSF, while Iraqi national team officials and friends known and unknown pulled strings over there -- perhaps even dangling from the ceiling like Ethan Hunt. Meram braced himself for additional complications and declined to speak to the media about it until he was in the airport on his way to Saudi Arabia, such was his worry that everything might fall through. When the passport finally arrived, there was no second guessing his decision -- even as his stock rose in the U.S.
“When would I get to play in something like the Asian Cup against Japan, in Australia, going against [Shinji] Kagawa and [Keisuke] Honda? I would still be waiting for a call [from the U.S.], hoping I get a call over the next seven or eight years of my career,” Meram said. “Maybe it would come in January or maybe I’d have to have this same season [with the Crew] three years in a row to get a chance. Who knows?”
His risk-reward proposition with Iraq is far different. He’s in, but said he still needs to get more comfortable with a foreign style of play. The tackles at the Gulf Cup were fast, fierce and eye-opening, he admitted, and the approach was far more direct.
“The defenders just kind of lump it forward and the attackers have to have a little bit of flair. With the Crew, [defender Michael] Parkhurst probably kicked it long three times all season,” Meram said.
“In MLS it’s so organized. Berhalter, all of our coaches, are probably not sleeping at night because they’re watching film on D.C. United. Whereas internationally, players come in and out and I don’t think they really focus on how this team plays or who plays what position, so it was kind of different for me,” he explained. “There’s no set pieces. There’s no, ‘Who’s marking who?’ Maybe with Spain, Italy or Germany they have all that figured out, but for us it’s a bit different. It was just kind of going out and playing.”
Meram was deployed as the second forward in a 4-4-2 in Riyadh, but he may be used differently under a new manager. Shenaishil, who also coaches a Qatari club, was confirmed only last week. Iraq shocked the world with its Asian Cup triumph in 2007 but has fallen on tougher times. The Lions, ranked 103rd by FIFA -- one spot above the Faroe Islands -- haven’t won a game since March and finished 1-5-2 in the fourth round of Asia’s 2014 World Cup qualifying competition.
But amid hardship, there’s opportunity.
“I like pressure at times. I’ve always been a guy that kind of embraces it,” Meram said.
War hasn’t dampened Iraq’s support for its national team, which hasn’t played on home soil in 19 months. Defeat hasn’t deterred fans either. The increasing amount of Arabic script on Meram’s Facebook page represents a tiny slice of the fervor. He said he was warned in Riyadh that “whole towns are sad” when the Lions lose.
“If we win, this is what’s going to bring them happiness. It’s what’s going to get them through the next day,” he said.
He felt it on the field at the Gulf Cup.
“When 40 million people from your country are watching you, there’s a little different kind of bite to it,” Meram acknowledged.
And he saw it on the faces of his teammates.
“That’s the first thing I noticed how much pride they have,” he said.
They have pride in the Iraq in which Meram’s parents were born, the one that’s recalled in stories shared with friends and family. The national team is an enduring institution in a country where so many others have failed. It represents the Iraq that was, and the Iraq that may live again some day. Meram doesn’t have to have been there to sense that.
“It’s been so corrupted by the war and the violence now that I don’t blame anyone who says they can’t imagine the beautiful parts,” he said. “But maybe, in a very microscopic way, this could be an opportunity for me to try and change something small in peoples’ eyes, show them that it’s not that bad."
He knows he won’t wear his beloved No. 9 in Australia -- that belongs to Ahmed Yasin. And he’s still not sure if officials will allow him to sport his real surname on the back of his jersey (either way, he said he has no clue how to get shirts for friends and fans who’ve asked for them.) But he does believe he can make a difference for his new team, and he certainly feels he belongs.
One night in Riyadh, Meram said, Iraqi fans managed to have a massive, customized cake featuring the starting 11 from the Gulf Cup opener delivered to the team’s hotel. He said he has no idea how they arranged it. He guessed there was at least nine square feet of cake.
It was a gesture from people he’d never met, a taste of a home he may never visit. But it’s one to which he’s 100 percent committed.
“Just the comments I get daily [on social media], you see how much passion they have for football. That’s what brings that country joy,” he said. “I just have a passport. But if I can help make their lives happy, that’s just a blessing. It’s a blessing for all of us to be part of this national team.”