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Crew SC's Justin Meram is on a mission: To bring Asian Cup glory to war-torn Iraq

Here, in Columbus, Justin Meram can walk around town with his fiancée without being too bothered. Despite being the third-leading scorer on Columbus Crew SC in 2014 and in his fifth season with the club, Meram doesn't have to deal with overwhelming hordes of fans in his everyday life.

But Iraqis have turned out in droves in Australia for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, where their National Team has surprisingly advanced to the semifinals. Their success has transformed Meram & Co. into rock stars among the Iraqi diaspora.

"Hotels hate us," Meram told by phone from Sydney on Saturday. "The lobbies are a disaster. It's high security and thousands of people chanting... It's sad in a way, because with football in America, they love the game, but the passion over here, it's incredible. Some fans are having anxiety attacks during the game and have to go to the hospital because they can't handle it.

"People come to our hotel the night before to take pictures with us. Some guys drove 13 hours just to see us at the hotel and take pictures with us. That's how much it means to them. It's a different way of life for their thinking about football and for our country. In Baghdad, from what we hear, no one is sleeping."

The pandemonium hit its peak -- for now -- on Friday, when the Lions of Mesopotamia, as the Iraq National Team is nicknamed, defeated longtime rivals Iran in the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup on Friday to set up a semifinal against South Korea on Monday.

"After the Iran game, we couldn't even get in our hotel door," Meram said. "After we won, it was a madhouse. We had to have lots of security and sneak in the back and go to our rooms, and we couldn't come down."

Meram started the match against Iran and played the first 45 minutes before being substituted at halftime. The match was a thriller, finishing 1-1 after 90 minutes. In extra time, the teams scored two goals apiece to put the score at 3-3 heading into a penalty-kick shootout, which Iraq won, 7-6.

"I can't even tell you [what it was like]; I don't know where to start," Meram said. "I almost had a heart attack. I wish I played the whole game because coming out [at halftime] made it worse because I had no control over it. Sitting there was just so tough. But getting to start and play against our rivals in the quarterfinals of the Asia Cup is pretty remarkable."

Meram, the son of two native Iraqis, was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. He grew up playing for local youth powerhouse Vardar and then starred at Yavapai College, a junior college and perennial national-champion contender in Arizona. After two years in the Southwest, he transferred to the University of Michigan, where he honed his attacking skills, notching 24 goals and 14 assists in 41 appearances for the Wolverines.

In 2011, he was drafted by Columbus and made his debut that February in a CONCACAF Champions League match against Real Salt Lake.

Eligible for both the US and Iraqi national teams, he chose to represent his parents' homeland, and after a lengthy paperwork process to obtain his Iraqi citizenship, was first called into a training camp in September 2014. It was the first time he had ever left North America.

"Obviously the first time for everyone, whether you speak the language or not, is going to be hard," he said. "Just like the new guys we get on [Crew SC], it's going to be an adjustment this year for them in the beginning and then they're going to be a part of us. That's kind of how it is for me."

Meram was called up again in October but decided to remain with Crew SC, who were in a heated playoff race. He finally made his debut for Iraq on November 14 against Kuwait in the Gulf Cup of Nations.

And now, Meram says, he's fitting in better with his new teammates.

"Now they don't look at me any differently from others," he says. "Our culture is very loving and very open and welcoming to new people and making sure they're one of us. They treat me like a brother, and I can't thank them enough. When you play well and you perform, they're obviously going to know that you didn't just come here because of a name. You came here and you're performing and doing well. So that obviously helps."

In just over three months, Meram has now been all over the world, including to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and, of course, Australia, where he saw wild kangaroos for the first time.

Not that he's had time or the opportunity to do much sightseeing, especially with all the crazed fans around.

"That's the downside: You want to go and see these cities and you only get limited time because you'll be bombarded," he said. "Wherever we go, restaurants, in the city, they're following us. There are cars with the flags and they're beeping horns and they know where we are at all times.

"But that's the dream that you want as a kid. You can't take it for granted."

Rabid fans are the least of Meram's concerns, though. He was subbed off in the quarterfinals at halftime, was subbed off after 71 minutes in a start against Palestine in the group stage, and was a second-half sub in the other two group-stage matches. He has yet to score an international goal. On the field, it seems, adapting to the international game is even more difficult than trying to find a good cheeseburger in Australia – the first item on his to-do list when he returns to the States.

But maybe, when Meram rejoins his Crew SC teammates after the tournamenet, he'll have some silverware with him. It's a long shot. Iraq have reached the semifinals, but they are still the underdogs, especially on Monday against South Korea, one of the giants of Asian soccer.

"In these tournaments, there are always going to be these teams that have that heart and the desire to win and the will to win," he said. "You need a little bit of luck. We had some luck on our side in the Iran game, and you're not going to win a championship without a little bit of luck, I strongly believe that."

It was heart and desire and luck that saw Iraq lift their first-ever Asian Cup in 2007, an amazing Cinderella story that was a touchstone moment for the war-torn country. The players from that team, including current captain Younis Mahmoud, are idolized back home.

If Meram and the Lions of Mesopotamia can pull off two more victories this year, they too would go down in history for bringing a little joy to their troubled nation.

"The reaction in Iraq after we won [against Iran], millions of people were watching, and to bring that joy to them for that moment, for that day, for that week, it's why you play the game for your country," he said. "I think our coach said it best. He said, 'No matter what we do, it will never be enough for Iraq, for the country and for the struggles.'

"There's just so much that's going on and it's so unfortunate. It's been going on for so long. Whatever we do won't be enough, but we're trying to do something to bring happiness to the country."

Andrew King covers the Columbus Crew for