ESL Interview with Shakuri, Azizi and Rihatzi

Just over four years ago, in 2012, a military coup unseated a King in the Kingdom of Buraqas. One of the first acts of civil disobedience against the new regime was held by three players of the Buraqi Men’s National Football Team. Captain Mohammed Shakuri, Tuphak Azizi and young starlet Karim Rihatzi all retired from the national team, vowing only to return when the King had been restored as ruler. Azizi and Rihatzi were forced to play (under Military order) in tournaments in 2013 and 2015, until the managed to escape the country. Shakuri was already abroad (based in Europe).

All three players now play in Eboria, Shakuri and Rihatzi in the ESL and Azizi’s TSV top the second tier at present. ESL Online took the opportunity to speak to these three players on the massive change in their homeland and their new lives abroad.

– ESL Online: Thanks for joining us. Do you have any regrets of leaving the National Team back in 2012?

Mohammed Shakuri (MS): No, not really. I think as Captain they were looking for a big show of support from me. I could not endorse a dictator in charge of my homeland. I could not endorse a new military regime. It was easier for me, I guess, being abroad already.

Karim Rihatzi (KR): My only regret is that I couldn’t leave the country straight away. I mean, I had to think of my family, to get the lot of us out of there. To play in tournaments under threat of military court-martial was just a way of them bullying us to continue. I’m just glad that we managed to get away when we did, so many haven’t.

Tuphak Azizi (TA): [Coughs] It was the right thing to do. No regrets. I would do it again all over.

– ESL: It seems like such a shame [The Coup] came at a time when things appeared to be on the up with the BSL (Buraqi Soccer League) and National Team. Do you look back and ponder what could have been?

MS: Yes, actually, I do. I wish this had never happened. The Academies, the import players… it was a time that we were actually feeling we could compete. We’ll never know how close we really were to the World Nations Cup in 2014 or next year’s tournament.

TA: No, I just hope that my friends and family are safe. I haven’t heard from so many people in a while. It really turns your world upside down. My wife and I are very fortunate. I can’t look back, I think it would be placing too much emphasis on a game. Life is not a game. So, no.

KR: Having come up through the academies, I know what great work was being done to increase our fitness, ball control, off-the-ball movement and finishing. Kevin and Chris [The Johnson Brothers] had put together a good team. It just all went so wrong. I am grateful that I got the chances I got, as well as to get out of there.

– ESL: How have you settled in Eboria, has it been difficult, culturally?

MS: Everybody has been very supportive, the communities are more open than I expected. I also have a local mosque to attend. I think having been in Europe made it an easier transition for me.

I get to eat, sleep, pray and play football. I love it!

TA: It was really hard for me at first. No because of other people. I just was in a state of shock- pure relief that we managed to get out of there. I don’t think I managed to calm down for six months. But yeah, as Hasan says, we can operate as normal, really.

KR: I found it overwhelming at first- the bright lights and people are everywhere. Culturally it is very different to what I am used to. That said, I have had lots of support and I love that you are allowed to be yourself here.

– ESL: Has being in a spiritual country been easier for you than, say, a Christian country?

TA: Well I guess it appears to be easier in that you are allowed to get on with your life, if you are being racially profiled, I guess it is being done very secretly. Most people seem to be open to you having your own beliefs with not sticking theirs down your throat. So, I do not force mine on them.

MS: [laughs] I don’t think it has been much different.

KR: I have no idea. I guess, what Tuphak said! [points to Tuphak Azizi]

– ESL: Thank you for your time, guys. We wish you all the best for 2017. May you be able to represent you country somewhere down the line.

MS: Thanks, though I feel it will come too late for me.

KR: I hope so.

TA: We’ll see. Never say never.

Questions asked by ESL Online’s Tim Sutton.

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