Ahmed Yasin: Iraq is in my heart
Jeddah: Ahmed Yasin was on target on Matchday Six of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Asian Qualifiers when he slid in at the back post for a deserved equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Australia at PAS Tehran Stadium to keep Iraq’s slim hopes of a place at Russia 2018 alive.
The 25-year-old moved from his native Iraq to Sweden as an infant, but the winger has become an important member of Radhi Swadi’s team on and off the field.
The-AFC.com spoke to Yasin ahead of Tuesday’s crunch tie away to Group B leaders Saudi Arabia to find out more about the Sweden-raised man who is still Iraqi at heart.
IRAQ AT HEART
By his own admission, Sweden is home for Ahmed Yasin. His earliest memories were created there, his football identity forged in the nation that gave the world Tomas Brolin and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
But when he pulls on the white shirt of Iraq and hears the national anthem reverberate around football stadiums across the continent, there is no doubting where his loyalties reside.
“I don’t remember so much from Iraq because I was only one or two years old when I came to Sweden for the first time, so I’ve been living there all my life,” he says. “But I’m never going to forget where I’m from and that’s Iraq.
“It’s in my heart and that’s why I chose to play for the Iraqi national team. When I say Sweden’s my home, it’s where I belong, it’s what I’m used to, the language and everything and all of my friends are there.
“I don’t have so much left in Iraq, but of course when I play for the national team and wear the jersey it’s a big moment for me and my family who are living in Sweden and that’s perfect.”
Move to Sweden
Born in Baghdad in April 1991 but raised in the town of Orebro in Sweden’s interior, football provided Ahmed and his three brothers the perfect way to integrate into life in a new country.
His is a familiar tale for new arrivals in a foreign land, with sport playing a key role in gaining acceptance in new surroundings. After moving through the youth ranks at BK Forward, Yasin was signing professional terms with the club in 2009 as an 18-year-old.
“It was harder for my family because when they first arrived there weren’t so many people from outside Sweden who were there,” he says. “I think they were the first immigrants to move there and it was hard for them because they didn’t know the language. I came there when I was two years and I know the language and I know who to act and to do things, so it’s not so hard for me. I feel at home there and all my friends are there.
“In the last 10 years, or over the eight years that I have been playing professional football, in my home city everybody knows my family and now they know me, so when the name Yasin comes up they know they have a player who has played there for the last four or five years and my name’s become even bigger in Sweden because of the national team in Iraq and the things I’ve done in the Swedish league, so it’s good.”
The Rise of Ahmed Yasin
Soon, though, he was on the move, joining cross-town rivals Orebro SK in 2011, where he spent four seasons before playing for a year with Denmark’s AGF in Aarhus and returning last year to Sweden to sign for AIK in Stockholm, one of the biggest clubs in the country and the former home to the likes of Olof Mellberg and Anders Limpar.
But it was making his debut for Iraq’s senior team in 2012 – having previously played for the country’s Olympic team – that took Yasin to another level. After spending his early years at the lower end of the game in Scandinavia, making his debut for Iraq at Japan’s Saitama Stadium gave him an appetite for more.
“I got a lot of experience from the national team because of the teams we have played. “I played my first game for the national team against Japan away in front of 55,000 or 60,000 people and that was a big thing for me. I came from playing in front of 10,000 in Sweden to 60,000 and I was watching like this,” he says, his mouth dropping open and his eyes bulging.
“But that kind of thing is not what you’re thinking of when the referee blows the whistle.”
“I’ve never been too far away from Iraq. My family has always been talking about Iraq and we always watch the Iraqi channels and stuff like that. I started to like and see the football in Iraq in 2007 when they came to the final of the Asian Cup.
“That was when I got my eyes on them and of course players like Younes Mahmood, Nashat Akram, they were very big players and when I first came to the team and saw the big players from 2007 I thought: Man, now I’m here! Now it’s time to show them. I have big respect for them. They have done a lot for this team and for Iraq and it’s not something anyone can take away from them.”
Much has changed since for Yasin, who has gone from the squad’s awe-struck new kid to becoming one of the leading lights of the team. And it’s not just his entrancing wing play that has marked him out as an important member of the Iraq national set-up.
A New Responsibility
As the number of overseas-raised players joining the team has increased in recent years, so the burden of responsibility has been heightened on Yasin, who has taken on the role of mentor to the new arrivals. In that position, he points out what it is that makes playing for Iraq unique.
“When you play in Europe, it’s different,” he says. “I’m not going to say it isn’t structured within the Iraq national team, but it is a lot more so in Europe. When I came to play with the national team it is different compared to Europe. I had a hard time at the beginning but I’ve been with the team now four or five years and I’m coming into that more and more.
“Now I’m teaching the other players who are coming from the outside. I was the first player who came from Europe, so I try to speak with them and help them with what I have gone through. I think I’ve been able to help these players.”
Heart and Soul
“The Iraqi people, when they come to the team they play with their heart and soul and they think of all the people who have been killed every day in Iraq and they want to make the people happy. So when they come here they come to give 100 percent and they see every minute is their chance to give something. And that’s what I try to explain to the players who are coming here, that this is very important and it has a big, big meaning to be here. Of course, there is that with every national team but with Iraq it’s more special I think.
“It’s a heavy bag to carry. For me, especially when we go to other countries and we see the fans coming to you like they want to eat you with photos and the like, then you get a special feeling in your heart. Football means a lot to them. For us to win and to see them happy, it’s a big thing.
“Sometimes before the games when we travel on the bus, I’m thinking or listening to music and the thing that wants me to give 110 percent in the game is when I think about the people I have seen, the fans and the people who have lost somebody.
“They tell me before the games, two days, or one day before the game, this guy died after that game when we lost, or something. Football is everything to them. When you just think about them you will give 110 percent. It’s much bigger. The only happiness they have is to see us play and to see us win.”