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A long way from Libya, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi finds a soccer home with NYCFC

Photographs by Chad Griffith
Styling by Melina Kemph

Shirt, 10 Deep- T-shirt, Uniqlo
Shirt, 10 Deep; T-shirt, Uniqlo

Growing up in Waddan, Libya, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi dreamed about playing soccer. Tajouri-Shradi was born in Bern, Switzerland, but as the son of a Libyan diplomat, the family moved back to their native country, where Tajouri-Shradi became immersed in the only sport that matters in the North African country. “We don’t have any other sport,” he says. “Soccer is number for everyone there. Plus, my dad was a soccer player, so I come from a soccer-crazy family. I dreamed of being a soccer player, but I never imagined that I would be playing in New York City.”

But New York is a city of dreams. And though Tajouri-Shradi had always dreamed of becoming a pro, the path to doing so in New York City was paved with his incredible skill and a little bit of luck. Though Libya is a country passionate about it’s soccer, It’s not an ideal place to be discovered as a young player. “It’s very hard to be seen there as a young player,” he says. “We don’t have scouts or people coming to see you play on the street. I would put my books from school down and play for hours. You make some goals and then you play. When my family moved to Austria for my father’s job, that was the first time I began to play with a team and an academy.”

As a soon-to-be teenager in Vienna, Tajouri-Shradi’s talent caught the eye of scouts for FK Austria Wien at a tournament, while he was playing for a district team “They spotted me after I had been playing for a couple of years,” he says. “I didn’t want to blow it! (laughs)” Far from blowing it, Tajouri-Shradi worked his way up from the youth teams to becoming a starter on the first team in the Austria Bundesliga. It was there that he caught the eye of scouts who alerted NYCFC of his talents.

“There were some opportunities,” Tajouri-Shradi says. But when (then head coach) Patrick Vieira calls and says he wants you to come play for him, it means a lot. So I didn’t think about it that much. I said yes immediately. Then you realize, you are going even farther away from home.”

The move created a bit of culture shock at first for Tajouri-Shradi. Though he spoke fluent Arabic and German, his English was very limited. Combine that with the time, distance and cultural differences, and it can be enough to disorient any player. “I was really fortunate,” he says. “NYCFC made me feel welcome right away. It was hard, but not so hard. In a few weeks, I felt at home.”

Part of the reason Tajouri-Shradi felt at home was because in some ways, he wasn’t alone. “I can remember taking the field for one game,” he says, “and all 11 players on the team were from a different country. And the supporters were better than I had ever experienced. For every game, we have at least 20,000 people. In Austria, there may be two games where you have that many supporters. The rest of the games, you might have 3,000-5,000 fans. I could see quickly that the game is growing in America and I am happy to be part of it.”

Major League Soccer also provided Tajouri-Shradi with something else he had never experienced before—long distance travel. “America is really big,” he says. “Every two weeks, we may go on the road and you have at least a three-hour plane ride to get to the next game. In Austria, we traveled to most of our games by bus. Maybe, you had a one-hour flight for the games farthest away. “

MLS travel will seem light compared to Tajouri-Shradi’s responsibilities as a member of the Libyan National Team, something in which he takes incredible pride. “It can be very difficult,” he says. “I didn’t play for the national team when I was in Austria. If the national team calls you, you have to go. From here, you may have to travel 14 or 15 hours and need a few days to get over the jet lag. You also have a seven-hour time difference, and there’s a game in three days. Then you have to play and win the game. It’s hard for African players to play for their national teams, when they are here in the United States for those reasons. But we are professionals and we give our best. I have a teammate, Mohamed El-Munir, who plays for LAFC. We always do whatever we can to give our best to the national team.”

With that, the Libyan national team also faces a number of obstacles—the main one being that the team cannot play home games in it’s own country due to ongoing civil unrest in Libya. As of 2014, FIFA has prevented Libya from playing sanctioned games in their home stadium due to security concerns caused by the ongoing civil strife in the county. The team has had to play home games in neighboring countries.

“There are a lot of reasons the Libyan team cannot play in our home country.” Tajouri-Shradi says. “It’s not good for us to have to play our home games in Morocco or Tunisia. If you want to play in the Africa Cup, you need your supporters. If we played in Libya, there would be 70,000 for sure. Everything in the country would stop for the game. Even with that, when we last played in Tunisia, the stadium was full. So many people came that there were guys sleeping outside because they couldn’t get in! Our goal was to win it for them, but we couldn’t, so we’ll have to try again. When we win, I really believe it will help bring people together. I really believe it can make a difference.”

Thousands of miles away, those same Libyan soccer-crazed fans follow Tajouri-Shradi’s every move on the field in New York City. Before an ankle injury kept him out of action for a few weeks, they were well aware of the screamers he was scoring for NYCFC through highlights that now travel the world. “The Libyan media is really good about that,” he says. “Every time I score a goal or make an assist, they keep all the Libyan fans updated.”

Hoodie, Zara- Pants, H&M
Hoodie, Zara; Pants, H&M

The one thing Tajouri-Shradi has yet to see, however, is a Libyan flag at his NYCFC home games. It’s not uncommon to see other native flags fly for the many international players on both the home and away teams. But he has yet to spot the distinctive red, black and green banner of his home country. “I would spot it right away for sure,” he says. “Maybe someday. I also really miss Libyan food—couscous, Libyan pasta that’s not like any other pasta. You can get any kind of food you want in New York City, and it’s amazing. But there is not one Libyan restaurant here.” When asked what his favorite Libyan dish is, Tajouri-Shradi simply smiles and says, “anything from mama’s kitchen.”

As our photo shoot ends, Tajouri-Shradi heads back home. Tomorrow, he has a doctor’s appointment where he hopes to get good news about his ankle. He’s been away from the field for too long, and he wants to return to the Yankee Stadium field, where he can do what he loves doing best. “I’m ready,” he says. “I have so much soccer left to play.”

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