A member of Iraq’s national team since 2014, Justin Meram understands the Middle East’s passion for football.
The US-born midfielder – a familiar face to Major League Soccer fans following spells with Columbus Crew, Orlando City and Atlanta United – qualifies to play for Iraq through his parents.
Now playing his trade with Real Salt Lake, the 31-year-old is well positioned to speak about next FIFA World Cup™ hosts, having visited and played in the country on various occasions during his international career.
In an exclusive interview with qatar2022.qa, Meram gave insight into what fans can expect when they visit Qatar in 2022 and outlined his hopes of being part of the first World Cup in the Middle East and Arab world with the Lions of Mesopotamia.
As a proud Iraqi and a member of the Iraq national team, how excited are you to see the next FIFA World Cup take place in neighboring Qatar in 2022?
Obviously, I’m very excited. I think it’s going to be fantastic for the Middle East and the World Cup. For many people from around the world to come to the Middle East to see the culture, the lifestyle and the beautiful stadiums, it’s going to be an exciting time.
How important do you think it is for the World Cup to head to new regions, such as the Middle East?
I think it’s very important. A lot of people are going to be blown away by the culture of the Middle East, along with the magnificent buildings and, of course, the passion for football. I think it’s going to turn the minds of people in a positive way.
When Qatar was awarded the World Cup, what was the reaction of football fans in Iraq?
Our country was excited. As players, when we heard the news, we were all excited and we all want to do everything we can to make it possible to play in this tournament, especially with it being so close to home and knowing there are many Iraqis in Qatar. All the countries in the region are very excited about the World Cup heading to Qatar.
Having played in the Middle East during your career, how would you describe the passion for football in the region?
The passion is there, but I think it doesn’t get enough attention. The geography might be a reason, but if you look at the quality in the Qatari league, the Saudi league, the UAE league, even the Iraqi league, I think it’s one of those situations where Qatar 2022 could really help these leagues and bring more attention to them.
Qatar 2022 will be held in November and December. How do you think that will affect the players and fans?
From my perspective, it’s going to raise the level [of play]. The temperature will be perfect for football and I think many of the players will be in peak condition.
Qatar 2022 will be the most compact World Cup in modern history. Players will stay and train in one location throughout the tournament. How important is it to avoid long travel times between matches?
Every athlete knows that flying takes a toll on your body, so this will be another advantage for all the teams in Qatar and help them stay fresh. During the Asian Cup in 2015 in Australia, we went from playing in Wollongong, to Brisbane, to Sydney, to Newcastle. After every game we were packing our bags, getting on flights, traveling, getting to a new hotel, unpacking and training. It’s a little unsettling when you’re continuously on the move. Qatar’s size is a real bonus for teams. They will be staying put and won’t need to take any flights during the tournament.
It’s also a bonus for fans, who won’t need to travel to different cities. Qatar will get a lot of great exposure as a tourist destination. Fans will be experiencing the Middle East for the first time and enjoying the football. All in all, there’s a lot of positives for those fans who will travel to Qatar in 2022.
And from an experience point of view, what can those fans expect when they travel to Qatar?
A lot of great stadiums, some fantastic football, great food and a lot of things that will surprise you as a tourist. I think everyone should try visiting the Middle East during their life – go and see the culture and the way people live there. It’s a very simple life for the most part with good people.
Finally, how much of a goal is it for you and your Iraq teammates to qualify for Qatar 2022?
It’s the biggest goal. We’ve done pretty well so far in the qualifiers, so we’ll keep pushing one game at a time. Hopefully, the best is yet to come for Iraq.