Islamic State militants drove Ayman Hussein from his home. Eighteen months later, he sent Iraq’s soccer team to the Olympics. Hussein scored the game-winning goal against Qatar last month in a qualifying match, uniting Iraqis in a rare moment of triumph and becoming a national celebrity.
But his journey to Brazil has been marked by the same violence and displacement that have shattered the lives of so many of his fans. Hussein and his family fled their home in a village outside the northern city of Kirkuk as ISIS swept across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014.
His brother, who was working for the local police, was abducted by the extremists and has not been heard from since. “No one really knows the story of exactly what happened to him,” Hussein said, adding that he still holds out hope that his brother is alive.
He’s told that his family’s home was demolished, and his mother and siblings have found refuge with extended family in Kirkuk while Hussein lives with his team in Baghdad. His father was killed in a 2008 attack in Baghdad claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq, a predecessor of ISIS. “This is not my family’s first story of terrorism,” he said. “It probably won’t be our last.”
The shy 23-year-old is still coming to terms with his newfound fame. During a recent practice with his local club on a patch of yellowing grass at a Baghdad sporting complex, he paused to let a fan take a selfie with him as his teammates gently teased him. “I never thought that one goal would cause this much happiness,” Hussein said.
Like most Iraqis, Hussein grew up playing soccer but never thought he would make a career out of it. That changed when the coach of his local team saw him playing in a park, and later asked him to sub for an injured player.
Eager to help support his family after his father’s death, he jumped at the opportunity. Hussein continued to play during his family’s most recent upheaval. “If I leave football, nothing would change. I wouldn’t get any of those things back,” he said. “I still thank God for my situation. I have walls around me … Many of the displaced Iraqis are living in tents.”
The soccer team’s victory over better-funded Qatar has become a rare point of pride across the country. Team jerseys are among the hottest-selling items in Baghdad’s main sportswear market, and the players returned to a hero’s welcome last month, when they were received by the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.
They were also received by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias fighting ISIS alongside Iraq’s regular security forces.
Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, said al-Muhandis compared the players to his fighters. “He said that we don’t give blood, but we give inspiration.”
Hussein shrugs when he recounts the story. “I guess it’s unique to meet these people, that it’s a nice feeling,” he said. He’s more excited about this summer’s trip to Brazil. “I’ve never even left Iraq except for trips with the football team,” he said.
“I only know about Brazil from YouTube and TV. They say that it’s famous for beaches and women,” he added with a shy laugh.
By Suzannah George