Less than 24 hours after the Black & Gold exited the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs on November 9, Crew SC winger Justin Meram was on a plane headed for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to represent Iraq for the first time in his young career on the heels of a breakout eight-goal, four-assist season in Columbus.
Born and raised in Michigan and choosing to represent the country of his parents' birth, Meram made his first transatlantic flight unsure of what to expect when he stepped off the plane.
"I was kind of nervous at first, getting there and getting used to the language and everything," Meram recalled.
The dynamic attacking player was one of the final two players to join the Iraq National Team in Riyadh, joining midfielder Yaser Kasim. Meram formed a quick bond with the Swindon Town (England) midfielder, who is one of the few Iraqi players who, like Meram, is fluent in English.
"I think me and Yaser Kasim from England were the last two to arrive," said Meram. "The bus was waiting for just us and everyone greeted me and welcomed me. It was awesome."
He continued: "The guys were great. Maybe five or six guys speak English as well as Arabic. The guys helped me out, teaching me more and more of the language. The first session was good. Soccer, football is football wherever you’re at. Playing with them was probably the easiest part for me. Off the field, Yaser Kasim and Ahmed Yasin from Örebro in Sweden — he was teammates with Mohammed Saeid — those two guys are probably who I’m closest with because they’ve spoken English their whole life as well… We have a good understanding of each other."
Most players get their feet wet in friendlies on the international stage, but Meram would not have that luxury. The Crew SC winger would be thrust into the spotlight as Iraq prepared for the Gulf Cup of Nations. Despite being in form following the MLS season, Meram was behind his teammates in training due to his club duty as Iraq had gathered over a week earlier to begin its preparation. Throw on top of that the 16+ hour flight from Boston to Riyadh, and the odds were against Meram to start in the Lions of Mesopotamia's Gulf Cup opener against Kuwait.
The circumstances didn't deter Meram, however. After a strong showing in training, then-Head Coach Hakeem Shaker put his faith in Meram to start as a forward in Iraq's 4-4-2 setup.
The moment of hearing his national anthem as part of Iraq's starting XI is something Meram will cherish for a lifetime.
"That’s a moment I wish I could go back and replay it," he said. "It was tough. At first I didn’t think I was going to start, but I had a really good session. It’s a tournament, and you have to put your best team out there. I was very fortunate to be there for 36 hours in Riyadh and start the game after those guys had been training for about 10 days together. It was unbelievable."
Meram's dream of earning his first cap for Iraq was realized, but how would he adjust to the international game?
"It almost went by too quick, but I still remember the first five to 10 minutes," he explained. "It was very, very tough for me to get used to the style. It’s very hard-nosed, and you’re playing for your country so every game matters. Everyone’s always watching. Everyone [in Iraq] is watching, so it really took me a few minutes. Then I decided, ‘I have to get used to this quickly, or it’s going to be a long night.’ I adjusted great and that was probably the best game I played."
Meram quickly turned heads on the Middle East's soccer stage against Kuwait. If not for a shot off the post and a goal-line clearance, perhaps Meram would have found the net in his Iraq debut. Unfortunately for the Lions of Mesopotamia, Kuwait scored a stoppage-time winner to hand Iraq a 1-0 loss in its Gulf Cup opening match. Meram would start the next two matches as Iraq drew Oman, 1-1, and lost to the United Arab Emirates by a 2-0 scoreline to be eliminated from group play in the tournament.
Despite the early exit, Meram will take his first brief experience as an Iraqi National Team player into the future as he prepares for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia next month. Like the Gulf Cup, the Group Stage of the Asian Cup presents no easy task. With new Head Coach Radhi Shenaishil at the helm, Iraq was drawn into Group D with regional power Japan, along with Jordan and Palestine.
A place in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup is on the line in the tournament as Iraq looks to capture its second Asian Cup after taking the crown in 2007.
"I took a lot [from the Gulf Cup]," said Meram. "You want to win, but at the same time, those tournaments are to prepare you for the Asian Cup and that’s the prize. That’s the goal for this upcoming January. I’m glad I was able to get my feet wet. I got to know the guys. Everyone is happy I’m around. It’s a good group. I think it was important to get out there, and get used to [international play]."
He went on: "It took a lot to understand how international soccer is played. Everyone talks about it, but until you’re actually physically playing it in these countries and these environments, it’s extremely different. It’s not your day-to-day club game, I can tell you that much... Iraq won it in 2007, right? So that’s the goal. 2011, they came up short, so hopefully we can bring joy to our great country by winning the Asian Cup. That would be a dream. That’s first and foremost. We want to get out of our group. It’s a tough group: leading it is Japan, and then you have Palestine and Jordan. We have to get results against Palestine and Jordan for sure, and hopefully get a result against Japan."
With only three caps under his belt, Meram has already become a star among Iraqi football fans. Lifting the Asian Cup next month would mean the world for a country that's been through so much over the last decade.
"[The fan response] is honestly very overwhelming," he said. "They’re just so happy I chose to play for Iraq and I try to help out as much as I can. If soccer can bring so much joy to them, then half of our job is done. The other half is on the field and getting results. The people are amazing and football is massive in Iraq.
"We know how much it means to the country every time we play."
Iraq kicks-off play in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup against Jordan on January 12 in Brisbane.