While plenty of soccer players earned international caps over these past weeks, only two players in Major League Soccer played in their home country for the first time. Those players are Columbus Crew SC midfielder Justin Meram (Iraq) and Sporting Kansas City’s Kevin Oliveira (Cape Verde Islands).
Justin Meram was called-up to Iraq’s national team early last week for an international friendly against Kenya on October 5. Crew SC’s own Lion of Mesopotamia previously made 24 appearances, earning his 25th cap in the match against Kenya, but unlike his previous matches, this friendly was played in Iraq.
Although Meram plays for Iraq, he wasn’t born there and before last week had never even set foot in the Middle Eastern country. Meram was born in Shelby Township, Michigan, to Iraqi parents who immigrated to the United States before the midfielder was born. Since his parents were both Iraqi citizens, Meram qualified to represent his community in Michigan – one of the largest communities of Iraqi immigrants in the United States – and connect to his ancestral roots.
Meram has featured for the Lions of Mesopotamia since 2014, making appearances in 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying matches as well as in the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations and the 2015 Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup.
Due to FIFA’s previous ban on playing matches in Iraq, Meram never had the opportunity to play a match in Iraq or in front of the country's native supporters that follow his career. During this time, Iraq played its home matches in neighboring countries, such as Iran and Jordan.
That changed when FIFA temporarily lifted the ban earlier this summer, allowing Iraq to host international friendlies.
Meram played in Iraq, in front of a stadium full of his fellow Iraqis. Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter was supportive of his midfielder’s decision to play.
“To see your homeland and to smell and to feel and to touch and to be in your homeland I think is something that’s really special and I’m really glad for him that he’s got this opportunity”, said Berhalter.
The match took place in Basra, located in southern Iraq. Meram started the match, playing 79 minutes and earning his team a penalty kick. Brwa Nouri converted the penalty in the 18th minute to put the Lions of Mesopotamia in the lead, which was then extended by Ahmad Ibrahim Khalaf in the second minute of first-half stoppage time.
Kenya scored in the 86th minute, but Iraq proved to be too much to handle at home.
After playing in Iraq, Meram described the trip as “Amazing in so many different ways, being my first time to Iraq, playing in front of our home fans, 30,000 just cheering you on. Experiencing something like that is what I wanted when I joined the national team three years ago and to finally have that chance was something that I’ll never forget.”
The Lion & his Pride
Meram's influence on social media is global with more than half a million followers between Facebook and Twitter, and a good portion stemming from Iraq.
“It’s just a blessing to finally get that opportunity and to play in front of all the fans ... I got teary-eyed just seeing everybody stand up for me an applauding me as I exit the field,” Meram said.
A King in his Kingdom
After returning to Columbus and Crew SC training, Meram reflected on the state of the game and it's growth in the Middle East.
“It was a long time coming," Meram said. "Just the reception that I had from the minute I landed, from the security at the airport to just the people loving and admiring me was very special and I couldn’t thank them enough”.
Meram is one of 11 Crew SC players to have received a senior National Team call-up throughout their careers (Mohammed Abu, Harrison Afful, Waylon Francis, Ola Kamara, Cristian Martinez, Jonathan Mensah, Justin Meram, Jukka Raitala, Rodrigo Saravia, Zack Steffen, Wil Trapp).
Columbus Crew SC has officially clinched a spot in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, returning to the postseason for the third time in four seasons under Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter.
With two MLS regular-season contests remaining, Meram and Crew SC are assured of finishing no lower than sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Black & Gold achieved 12 regular-season home victories in 2017, setting a new club record for most regular-season wins at home.
Final postseason seeding will be determined in the coming weeks as the Black & Gold (15-12-5, 50 points) conclude the regular season along with all other MLS clubs.
Up next, Crew SC travels to take on Orlando City SC at Orlando City Stadium on Sunday, October 15.