Baghdad — Islamic State militants drove Ayman Hussein from
his home. Eighteen months later, he sent Iraq's soccer team to the Olympics.
Hussein kicked 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
Hussein and his family fled their home in a village outside
the northern city of Kirkuk as IS 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 IS.
"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,"
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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
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
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 IS 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
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
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