AUGUSTA — Days before Yousif Ibrahim boarded a plane to chase down a dream in Baghdad, Iraq, he couldn’t help but feel a tinge of nerves.

“I know there’s going to be a lot of players from outside the country,” said Ibrahim, 18, a Cony High School senior. “But I know I’m prepared for whatever. I know I’m going to go there and will just have to perform and to play my best.”

On Sept. 7, Ibrahim ventured to his family’s native Iraq to participate in a months-long prospect camp for the country’s under-20 national soccer team. The camp, run by Iraq’s national team manager Emad Mohammed, is a tryout of sorts for Ibrahim and dozens of other soccer standouts.

A successful camp could land Ibrahim on the Iraq U-20 national team, which competes in several international competitions, including the Asian Cup in the Asian Football Confederation.

Iraq last won the Asian Cup in 2000. The team has qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup five times, including a fourth-place finish in 2013.

“(Iraq) is my home, it’s a dream to have (the opportunity),” said Ibrahim, who was born in Baghdad. “When I first got (the invitation), I thought, ‘There’s no way.’ I always watched them on TV and stuff. It’s just a dream, with how hard I’ve worked. I’m very thankful for this opportunity and I worked really hard to receive this. … You don’t really get people from Maine that go big in soccer.”

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Yousif Ibrahim poses with an Iraqi flag on Sept. 6 at the CARA fields in Augusta. Ibrahim, a Cony High School senior, is attending a soccer camp in his native Baghdad with hopes of making Iraq’s under-20 national team. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The Ibrahim family immigrated to the United States in 2014, settling first in Chicago, after living in Iraq and Jordan. The family moved to Maine in 2019.

Chris Myers Asch, director of the Capital Area New Mainers Project, said the Ibrahims are part of a larger Iraqi immigrant population that is thriving in Augusta.

“Augusta became a focus for Iraqi immigration in the mid-2010s,” he said. “It started with one family that moved here, and they really liked it here so they started calling people. By the mid-2010s, we had about 20 to 25 Iraqi families here, and once you have that, you can start building institutions. Building institutions then attracts more people. There are probably closer to 100 Iraqi and Syrian families here now, which is more than 500 people.”

Ibrahim will take part in several drills and physical tests during the soccer camp in Baghdad. Ibrahim will miss a month of school at Cony, but he said he is well ahead in his courses and is on pace to graduate six months early.

“I had him as a student in U.S. history class last year, and he did a really nice job,” Cony athletic director T.J. Maines said. “I’ve known Yousif since he’s been in the school, as an athlete and as a student. What stands out is that he certainly loves soccer, probably as much as any person that I’ve ever encountered. He’s done a lot to try to improve his skills. He certainly had a nice early run as a varsity player here at Cony. When his mind’s right, he’s a fantastic player, and if everything goes well, that’s great.”

“We certainly wish him the best of luck,” added Cony High Principal Kimberly Liscomb.

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The opportunity to attend the camp came about thanks in part to a social media push. Ibrahim reached out via Instagram to Lovers of the Iraqi team, which has connections to the U-20 national team. Ibrahim shared a training video of himself and then filled out an application with the Iraq Football Association. Soon after, he received an invitation letter from the team to attend camp.

Yousif Ibrahim poses with an Iraqi flag on Sept. 6 at the CARA fields in Augusta. Ibrahim, a Cony High School senior, is attending a soccer camp in his native Baghdad with hopes of making Iraq’s under-20 national team. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“An international call-up is huge,” said Ibrahim, who returned to Iraq with his mother, Mayadah Abbas. “You’ve got to get (the team) to recognize you. It’s not just a handout sent to players. They’ve got to recognize you, see how good you are. From there, they go, ‘Yeah, he may have a chance to play for our national team.’ It’s more of a youth test for the U-20s, but when I received the invitation, I was just so happy. Especially for my parents; this is something I want to give to them, to go big, become a professional and pay them back, because they did a lot for me.”

Ibrahim will not be paid while attending the camp, but has accommodations set up through the team. He said he also has family living in Baghdad.

A midfielder, Ibrahim played a big role for Cony last season, where he was named a regional all-star by the Maine Soccer Coaches Association.

“He’s a really good player,” Cony boys soccer coach Don Beckwith said. “He’s great one-on-one (against a defender).”

Ibrahim said he’s played soccer since he was 4. His father, Rabeeah Abrahim, played club soccer in Iraq in his youth, before serving in the Iraqi navy. He is a veteran of the Iraq-Iran war, which went from 1980-88.

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“I would take him to the (soccer fields in Jordan),” Rabeeah Abrahim said. “I (taught) him, because I was a player, too. I’m kind of like his coach. I could identify (at an early age) that he was going to be a good player.”

The Ibrahim family lives near the CARA soccer fields in Augusta, giving Yousif Ibrahim a place to play throughout the year. He is one of four children in the family, along with his brother, Ali, and sisters Safa and Marwa. Yousif Ibrahim credits his brother for pushing his soccer career.

“My brother and I are the only two that are serious (about soccer),” Ibrahim said. “We always got up (early) to train. If one of us was lazy, the other one would force us to go. We have that type of bond. We were always at the field, the gym. We always trained together, give advice to each other. We always believed in each other. To this day, my brother is saying, ‘I’m proud of you.’ He supports me to this day.”

Now, nearly 6,000 miles from his Augusta home, Ibrahim is looking to take that next step in the sport.

“The plan makes sense to me. I feel like it’s meant to be,” Ibrahim said. “I’m just really thankful.”

Central Maine sports editor Bill Stewart contributed to this report.

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