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How the refugee son of an Iraqi car salesman became the new darling of the County Ground
FROM playing in goal in a 25-a-side kickabout on the scalding tarmac of Baghdad to pulling the strings against Chelsea’s millions, Yaser Kasim’s route to cult hero status at Swindon Town is the path less trodden.
In fact, his particular walkway is barely touched. Very few of the hundreds of professionals in English football can recount a life story quite as extraordinary as Kasim’s – the tale of how the son of an Iraqi used car parts salesman took less than a month to become the idol of several thousand football fans in Wiltshire.
When the Advertiser sits down with Kasim at the County Ground, the midfielder is in typically jovial mood. The 22-year-old has learnt football the hard way, from roughing it with teenagers on Baghdad’s streets to turning down a professional deal at Tottenham, struggling at Brighton and being left to consider his future in the game, and it’s evident that that series of events has given him a rare ability to enjoy every day of every week he spends earning a living through the sport.
Through the beard now revered by Town supporters, Kasim starts at the beginning and recalls his early years in war-ravaged Iraq.
Baby Yaser was born on May 10, 1991, a little more than two months after the first Gulf War came to an end. He lived with his father Safa, mother Sumaya and two siblings in an apartment block in the Iraqi capital.
Though the scars of coalition air strikes were far from healing and Saddam Hussein’s rabid dictatorship spread its ugly wings across the country, Kasim fondly remembers his childhood.
“Life was good, to be fair,” he said, with a discernible twinkle in his eye. “When you’re a kid you don’t really think of what’s going on, even though we had a dictatorship and things like that. The weather was always good, we were always out playing until late at night, it was warm, as a kid you have no responsibilities so you mess around, you go to school, it was a very enjoyable time in Iraq.”
As Kasim grew up he quickly found football. Not on lush green pitches in organised sessions, as many of his contemporaries in the Swindon team learnt the game, but in great scrums of kids. And, quite bizarrely, his footballing adventure started not in the middle of the ‘park’ but in between the sticks.
“We’d have 50 or 60 players on tarmac kicking a ball with bare feet. I was playing in goal quite a bit but then I moved outfield and enjoyed it more,” he said.
“It was just a mess-about and it was tough because there was no age range. There were 15-year-olds playing with seven-year-olds. By the end of the day we were all bruised, bleeding and we’d go home. I was always dirty and bleeding. My toes were always bleeding because we played in bare feet on hot tarmac.
“After a while my mum got used to it. She’d be a little bit angry but she was alright.”
KASIM ON DUTY AT IRAQI YOUTH LEVEL (front row, second from left)
With his business struggling, Safa Kasim made the decision to move the family out of Iraq – not an easy task.
“Debts were piling up so he sold everything off, got a bit of cash and the story is he left Iraq with $700. That’s what he says, that’s the story,” said Yaser.
“My mum backed it up but I said ‘how can you leave with $700 for the whole family?’ There’s five of us so he’s got $700.
“I think he bribed one of the guys at the border because you’re not allowed to leave and we got into Jordan. We spent a year there and applied for refugee status in the UK through the UN, and the UK accepted because my dad used to write literature about the regime in Jordan.”
The Kasims arrived in England two months after the 1998 World Cup, a tournament a wide-eyed Yaser watched eagerly on TV in Jordan. The family moved into a small house in west London and Kasim joined a junior football team at the Westway Sports Centre in Kensington.
In a quirk of fate, he ended up in the same squad as a certain Wes Foderingham.
“Wesley was in the same team as me, as well, we used to play together and that was my first club culture,” he said. “We used to train twice a week after school, come in, pay £2, train and have fun.”
Kasim’s talent was quickly recognised by his coach, Barry Leach, who gave him a foot-up into the Fulham academy. It was then that then 15-year-old had his first taste of rejection. Fulham didn’t want to retain his services.
“I stayed there for a little while but then I got to Tottenham and then Fulham said they made a mistake, apparently,” he said.
Fulham wouldn’t be the first club to make a mistake in letting Kasim slip away. The teenager quickly got picked up by Spurs and was part of a talented youth set-up which included the likes of Danny Rose, John Bostock, Dean Parrett, Andros Townsend and Steven Caulker.
KASIM DURING HIS TOTTENHAM DAYS
The attitude towards the sport was a huge departure from life back in Iraq.
“As a kid you’re just playing and having fun but you don’t think about what other people think,” said Kasim. “As you grow older you do, but I was just trying to have fun and I did that at the start of my time at Tottenham.
“I was playing and developing through the under 11s, under 12s and under 13s. As I was developing I could see the differences in culture and people’s mentalities.
“It might have been difficult at times because there’s a little more friendship at home, they’re like your brothers. Here you see them twice a week after school, train and then have a game. There are parents and jealousy but as a kid you’re just trying to enjoy it.”
Kasim spent three years at Spurs before being offered a pro deal by the Premier League side. He turned it down.
“I left. They offered me professional terms and I left,” he explained. “The situation was towards the end of my scholarship I started thinking of the future a bit more and I saw the players ahead of me – one year ahead, two years ahead – were stagnating.
“They weren’t necessarily well looked after because Tottenham is a big club, they want results and players are more of an asset than an actual player. For me, I thought ‘you know what, I’m not really enjoying this, I just want to go somewhere where I can play’.”
One reason for Kasim’s decision to leave, according to Tottenham blogger Chris Miller, may have been the club’s reluctance to involve him in major matches at academy level.
Miller, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Spurs’ youth set-up is relayed on his website www.windycoys.com, told the Advertiser that over-hyped stars such as Bostock – a £700,000 capture from Crystal Palace aged 15 – blocked Kasim’s progress.
He said: “My impression of him was he was very much being kept away from the big games. Bostock and Parrett had been brought in as high-profile signings and they were given the chance to shine in the bigger matches.
“There had been a bit of hype around them and maybe there was some pressure to give those two the games.
“I felt as though the balance of the team was always better when Yaser was in it.
“When he left there was a bit of a rumour going around that his dad had an objection to the way things were going. Yaser is very much a family man so maybe that had something to do with it.”
And so Kasim voluntarily walked away and into the wilderness. It was a choice at the time he made without hesitation. Reflecting on it now, he accepts it was made in haste.
“At the time I just made the decision because I wasn’t enjoying it,” he said. “Looking back at it, it should have been a much tougher decision. But then again, what I went through was something unique. It was a hard time but it changed me. It changed me in a positive way.”
KASIM LOOKED TO START AGAIN AT BRIGHTON
He was picked up by Brighton, after a wrangle regarding compensation was resolved thanks to Seagulls boss Gus Poyet’s links with White Hart Lane. But Kasim only featured twice for the Sussex side.
“There was always something missing at Brighton, something just didn’t click but I can’t put my finger on it,” said Kasim.
“Maybe the style of play was a bit fast-paced but I can handle that. The club was in transition, they were going for promotion, the gaffer was under pressure to get results and there were a lot of players coming and going out – it never really clicked.”
With his prospects at the Withdean Stadium almost non-existent, Kasim shuffled into non-league. He joined Luton and then Macclesfield, struggling to make an impression at either.
MOVES TO LUTON AND MACCLESFIELD DIDN'T WORK OUT
Luke Williams, now Swindon’s assistant coach, worked with the playmaker at Brighton and regards him as a close friend. During this particularly trying period of Kasim’s career, Williams remembers how the player did begin to contemplate life without football.
“He seriously considered thinking about having to do something else because it didn’t look like the chance was going to come up,” said Williams. “I recommended he tried to fight for his place at another club and I know he’s not one to give up easily but I think there was a thought in his mind that he might go out of the game.
“I think in England he’s a rare sort of player because he plays to try to control the game for his team and he wants to be able to be a step ahead of the opposition. In England we don’t tend to play so much like that, we tend to play without the ball a lot.
“We give it to the other team and chase after it and try to rush them into a mistake. Yaser’s not going to thrive in that sort of environment.”
Kasim stuck it out. Despite being moved on by Luton he refused to give up on his career and on April 23 this year he was invited by Swindon Town to take part in a development XI match against Bristol Rovers.
Mark Cooper, then assistant manager to Kevin MacDonald, was in charge of the Robins’ side that day.
The Swindon boss told the Advertiser: “He played at the end of last season in a trial game. He came on trial and played away at Bristol Rovers, he played in a 4-4-2 and I couldn’t see him playing for us in a 4-4-2.”
Kasim got the impression that Town weren’t keen.
“Sometimes you can sense whether the manager likes you or whether he thinks that you’re a good player but he doesn’t necessarily want you,” he said.
“I got that sense of it being 50-50 or not really being what they want.”
Then everything changed. Kevin MacDonald quit the County Ground in July, Cooper succeeded him, Swindon completely changed their playing system and with 4-3-3 in place Kasim became an option.
He returned to feature in a friendly against Birmingham, impressed enough to go with the squad to Portgual for a pre-season training camp and his display in a 3-3 draw with a Tottenham XI was enough for director of football operations Lee Power, who was out in the Algarve, to offer him a deal.
“Once you look at a player’s history or mentality you have to know more about him,” said Kasim. “If you look at it just on paper you’ll say ‘he’s gone there and there and it hasn’t worked out’, but if you don’t know the player you won’t know how much he wants it or what he can do for you.”
Williams in particular was delighted by Kasim’s progress with Swindon.
“To be involved in that break and that chance was brilliant because Yaser was very low at one point. He felt like there was a chance he might go out of football altogether so it’s a dream come true for both of us to be able to work together,” he said.
“I spoke to Yaser a few times. He called me for advice and I spoke to Yaser’s agent and it was brilliant when I got to meet up with him again at Swindon.”
Such has been Kasim’s impact in Wiltshire that he was the subject of a rejected £250,000 from QPR for his services in January. Furthermore, fan website The Washbag has created T-shirts in his honour with the strapline ‘Yaser’s gonna get you’.
KASIM'S MOVE TO SWINDON HAS SEEN HIM BECOME A HERO
Kasim was unaware of his clothing line until informed by the Adver. He laughed. Perhaps he is a little embarrassed. He shouldn’t be. This week the son of an Iraqi second hand car parts salesman earned himself a three-year deal with a Football League club, just reward for extraordinary perseverance.
As level-headed as ever, the midfielder knows that the length of a contract isn’t everything.
“I’ve got three years but six months ago I wasn’t really anywhere, I’m happy for that,” he said. “In six months’ time you never know what can happen in football so the most important thing is the next game.”
His manager echoed those sentiments.
“You see it up and down the country, people who you think are not good enough get a second chance and they take it,” Cooper said. “It gives hope and belief to a lot of young lads out there who want to make a career out of the game.
“You see it all the time but I’m not sure Yaser’s that kind of boy, I think he just wants to play football. We’ll keep onto him, try to drive him and try to make him even better and with his ability there’s no reason why he can’t go and play where he wants to play.”
Given everything Kasim has been through, it’s hard not to agree with Cooper on that.
YASER KASIM IN ACTION
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