For Justin Meram, a breakout season was rewarded with the news that he has earned a call-up to the Iraq National Team. Another terrific, feel-good example of what can happen with persistent dedication and hard work, the Crew winger's eight goals and four assists in 2014 were more than enough to impress Head Coach Hakeem Shaker, and Meram is headed to Saudi Arabia to represent Iraq in the upcoming Gulf Cup of Nations.
"This is something I have waited for my whole life," said Meram. "To finally get a call-up is amazing and I can’t thank enough my family and friends, my teammates and everyone with the Crew. Without them, this dream wouldn’t be possible. I have to thank the coaches as well for believing in me."
Although Meram was born in Michigan, both of his parents are Iraqi and he was raised under their culture. In recent weeks, he gained Iraqi citizenship and was thus eligible for a call-up as a dual citizen. While Meram said he has never visited his parents' home nation before, he only had one goal in what country he wanted to one day represent, and that was Iraq.
“The number one focus was the Iraq national team. It has always been my focus. My family comes from back home, that’s my culture, I was born and raised with it. That was my dream and it was a goal I always wanted. I'm just so happy to be a part of it now."
The call-up is coming at a perfect time for Meram. Fresh off of a breakout season, the winger says he's playing the best soccer of his career right now, which will help him make the transition to the international stage. Meram will participate in the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations, an eight-team tournament of Middle Eastern sides. Held in Saudi Arabia, Iraq is set to square off with Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates beginning on November 14. The Crew winger is flying to Saudi Arabia tonight, where he will immediately begin the process of assimilating with his new teammates.
"I've talked to guys on the team and I know about the coach and the system they play," said Meram. "It's just going to be one of those things where I have to get acclimated with the team and train and see what the best position will be for me under the system with the National Team. They play a 4-4-2, so I am going to be a second forward or one of the outside [midfielders]. I'm excited to get there, meet everybody, train, be around the guys and just know everybody and take it from there."
Meram has plenty of resources to turn to within the Crew family in preparing for his first call-up. He said that he spoke with Kevan George about the experience of specifically playing in Saudi Arabia, as George did so in a friendly while representing Trinidad & Tobago in 2013. He also spoke with veteran Kei Kamara about the travel rigors and how to be prepared. Now, he heads to the Gulf Cup of Nations ready to both represent his country and develop even further as a player.
"It's going to open up my eyes to a whole different level of soccer and it's another step, so I have to be really prepared and focused and take everything in when I get there. It is going to be interesting to see how training sessions go and training camps. The Gulf Cup is a really big tournament. It's just going to be one of those getting to know everybody [situations], and just learn as much as I can: learn how the guys play, the style of play, the coaches' philosophy and really just taking it all in. I'm going in with no expectations. It is an international team with a rich tradition, they have been playing really well over the best couple of years. Winning the [AFC Asian Cup] in 2007 was a huge deal for the country. I just want to go there and hopefully bring some trophies back as soon as possible."
In the end, there's nothing that can duplicate the feeling of national pride, and after a breakout season with the Crew, it's a just reward for Meram to be able to experience that feeling on the world stage.
"I've thought about my culture all the time within the locker room with the guys or friends outside of soccer. They know how proud I am of Iraq, where I come from, the culture and things like that. To wear the jersey is going to be a dream come through. I'm going to get goosebumps, maybe get a little teary-eyed. I can't wait for that moment. It's going to be one I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life."