By Stuart Hammonds
ANYONE who has seen Swindon Town’s restyling under Mark Cooper will recognise Yaser Kasim as a director of traffic in the heart of a three-man midfield.
It’s something the 22-year-old has been used to since his nascent years in his native Iraq, when he would be part of a 23-man engine room that brought traffic to a halt!
“Because the weather is so nice, we would just stay out the whole day playing football,” Kasim says as we chat around an uncovered chipboard table in one of the Robins’ hospitality rooms.
The inclement weather soaking the County Ground provides stark contrast to the baking Baghdad street-pitch temperatures he grew up with.
“I didn’t go to school in Iraq, I just played football outside our apartment block in bare feet on hot tarmac. There would be 50 players, so we’d close off the road. Cars wouldn’t even attempt to come through.
“At the end, we’d all be tired and dirty, someone’s tooth would be knocked out, my feet would be bleeding – but we’d just sit there laughing and joking.”
As a boy growing up under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Kasim had learned enough not to hold any fear when in 1998, after a year living in neighbouring Jordan, his family moved into Kilburn, west London, as refugees.
“I spent a lot of time in Ladbroke Grove at the Westway Sports Centre, a massive complex with loads of astroturf pitches,” says Kasim. “We used to go and play there every night after school, me and Wes, the goalkeeper here.”
Remarkably, while Kasim and several of his ex-Tottenham youth colleagues have been reunited at Swindon this season, his free transfer move from Brighton also brought him back together with childhood pal Wes Foderingham.
“It’s funny,” laughs Kasim. “He makes a few jokes about how bad I was when I was younger. I came in during the summer and he was like: ‘You must have been on steroids or something, you are a changed player’.
“When I came to London, I developed the technical aspect of my game a lot more. The 25-a-sides in Iraq gave me toughness. But over here, I was alone and all I had was a football, so every day I’d just work on my touch.
“It helped that there was a complex like Westway. Every night I’d just go round every pitch seeing if someone hadn’t turned up. I was 11, 12, 13 years old, asking for a game with grown men I didn’t know.”
Football lovers often bemoan the absence of kids playing for fun, and the thought of a young boy approaching a group of men for a kickabout is almost unheard of in modern Britain.
“Exactly,” says Kasim, “but I think the atmosphere I’d been used to gave me confidence to do that. I’d go home from school, eat, do some of my homework – and then go straight to Westway. I’d be there the whole night. Sometimes I’d get four or five different games. That’s five hours of football!”
A trial at Fulham earned 15-year-old goalie Foderingham a scholarship, but they rejected Kasim. He was soon picked up by Spurs, but frustrated by a lack of opportunity, he left White Hart Lane in 2010 – a decision he now looks back on as “maybe a bit rash” – and spent the best part of a year being priced out of successful trials due to Daniel Levy’s demands for compensation.
It was only when then-Brighton manager Gus Poyet, an ex-Tottenham favourite, came in that he was allowed to sign somewhere again.
“I’d even gone to Azerbaijan, and Tony Adams offered me a deal at Gabala,” says Kasim. “But I just didn’t see myself coming back to England or any other top European country from there.”
He admits to feeling that it might have been the end last summer when he’d spent much of the season on loan in Non- League. At Luton, he found himself not even being selected for matchday squads.
He went back weeks before schedule, and Macclesfield was his next loan destination last February. The end was nigh at Albion – and maybe even for his career.
A trial at League One Swindon didn’t promise much under Kevin MacDonald, but with Cooper taking over and changing the style from a direct 4-4-2 to a fluid 4-3-3, Kasim was seen as the ideal man for midfield.
Last week he scored his second goal of the campaign in the 2-1 win over play-off rivals Peterborough, who also stand in the way of an appearance at Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy semi-final, and he’s starred against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup.
“We lost,” he says, “but that has to be the highlight of my career because it was a monumental sort of tie, proving myself against Premier League players.”
The Under-23 cap turned down the chance to represent his country this term to try to establish himself at Swindon, but would “love” to eventually play for Iraq’s full side. Would he ever consider going back there to live?
He ponders: “If it becomes more of a democracy and a bit more westernised… but then I’ve grown up attached to so much of what London is, so it’d be tough to go back.
“I’m more likely to go and live somewhere hot in Europe or maybe Australia. My girlfriend Corinne is from Melbourne and she’s there at the minute. She texts: ‘Look, this is what I’m waking up to, it’s sunny every day’. I send her mages of Swindon with: ‘This is what I’m waking up to!’”
We near the end of a hugely enjoyable chat, and Kasim’s laughter fills the empty room. It’s not often you get a young footballer so engaging and intelligent.
“With all the different things in my life, it’s given me more ammo for my personality and to tackle different things,” he concludes.
“I’m grateful I’m in a situation now that’s good and I do what I love. Other people – friends, family – don’t necessarily know what they want to do, and that’s a tough situation.
“I went through that as well when I left Spurs, and when I left Brighton I had chats with Luke Williams, my coach there and here now, about football not being for me. But now I’m here, every day I’m grateful.”
It might be wet in Wiltshire, but the boy from Baghdad really is having a ball.