The Prisoner of MAPFRE: Justin Meram
FIFA famously does not tolerate any government interfering with its national football federation. Most recently, Mali was suspended indefinitely from international play, including World Cup qualifiers, when the country's sports minister sacked the Malian FA's entire executive board. FIFA has always been quick to punish any such direct interference. Indirect meddling, however, is another matter, as Columbus Crew winger/Iraqi international Justin Meram is discovering.
From wherever immigrants hail, assimilation into American life typically follows the same pattern. The first generation struggles with language, food, and culture. They tend to stay within their own ethnic communities, remaining monolingual. The second generation initially experiences their parents' culture before learning English and American ways in public schools. They tend to be bilingual, strongly identifying, through mom and pop, with a country they may have never seen. Typically, it is the third generation who fully acclimate, speaking only English, waving the Stars and Stripes, preferring burgers and pizza to, in this case, kebab, falafel, and quzi.
Justin Meram, born in Michigan to Iraqi parents, is second generation. He has played his entire career in the United States, all but one year with Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew. Yet, he still feels a strong bond to Iraq.
While the 28-year-old doesn't possess Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial's blazing speed, his game is in most other aspects comparable to the two Manchester United attackers. Finally playing as a number nine this season, he previously set up on the left flank. From there, he made dangerous runs, took on defenders, loved to cut inside, then bend the ball into the far side-netting. Now he displays Rashford's wonderful vision, playing incisive through balls. If defenders back off, he punishes them like another United sensation, Paul Pogba, with thundering long-range volleys.
After a half-dozen seasons playing second fiddle to a pair of talented Argentinians, Guillermo Bellos Schelotto and Federico Higuain (Gonzalo's older brother), Meram is having a breakout season for the Crew, fast becoming the marquee star at MAPFRE Stadium. In his first dozen games this year, he has notched seven goals, one shy his career best from 2014, accomplished in 32 matches. Meram also has three assists. If there is a flaw in his game, it's the same overt aggression that sees Rashford, Martial, and Pogba waste so many promising possessions. Should he continue scoring at his current pace, however, coach Gregg Berhalter will happily live with that.
Unfortunately, Meram has had to learn caution in a very painful manner, away from the pitch. In March, he felt compelled to decline his selection to the Iraqi national team for its World Cup qualifiers. He wasn't injured or exhausted. The MLS season had just begun. Instead, he was caught up in politics. Just before Iraq summoned, newly elected President Donald Trump had revised and re-issued his original executive order banning US entry from certain Muslim countries.
Even though Meram is an American citizen and Iraq was no longer among the countries on Trump's blacklist, the player nevertheless had reason to fear he may not be able to return home. FIFA has designated Iraq an unsafe destination. The Lions of Mesopotamia are thus forced to play their home matches in neighbouring Iran, a nation still on Trump's list. Meram doubted authorities would let him re-enter the US, even though both Trump bans had been ruled unconstitutional by more than one American court. His fears were soon borne out.
One week after Meram announced he would not meet up with the Lions, a retired American police chief was detained at New York's JFK airport upon returning from Paris. His former profession and current one, as a consultant who has frequently advised the White House on law enforcement matters, were of no interest to the first customs agent he encountered. He was only cleared and released after a second, more sensible agent intervened. If a long-serving police officer with Washington connections and American citizenship could almost be denied entry when returning from France, what might a relatively unknown athlete expect coming back from a country that allegedly sponsors terrorism?
Meram is not yet a designated player. He will make just $328,750 for the entire 2017 season. Meanwhile, Paul Pogba earns £290,000 weekly. According to Google, that converts to $377,330, roughly $50,000 more income in seven days than Meram sees in 365. While the Crew midfielder isn't married, his choice to play for Iraq shows his bond with his parents. To be separated from family indefinitely with relatively limited financial resources is understandably daunting.
As yet, Meram has not announced his availability for Iraq's upcoming June qualifiers. Ironically, should he elect to participate, then, on the journey home, find his name, facial features, and itinerary raise flags with those who profile Muslims, any suspicions would be baseless. Meram's family is not Muslim. They are Chaldeans from Mosul, thus Catholic. Until Trump issued his executive orders, the Crew star was the only Christian among the Mesopotamian Lions.
So, while the US president travels within shouting distance of several nations on his list, making billion-dollar deals, and line-dancing with Saudi royalty, Justin Meram remains in the US in fear, a prisoner of false rhetoric and bigotry.