- On World Children's Day, Yousuf Zetuna recalls his childhood as a refugee
- His dream is to be a professional footballer
- "I couldn't live without football" he says
There are people who play football for fun and some who play in pursuit of a professional career. But there are also others, like Yousuf Zetuna, who play to help forget the toughest times in life.
Zetuna was born in Iraq but had to leave his country at a very young age because of religious conflicts. His family ended up in a Turkish refugee camp, and it was there he discovered that the joy of football outweighed the sadness of having had to leave his homeland.
"I’ve had a love of football for as long as I can remember. My dad was a player and coach, so I've always been surrounded by it. When I arrived in Turkey as an eight-year-old, they had a little football school for refugees, where I played a lot. Outside class time, I played every spare minute I had," he recalled.
Although not fully aware of it at the time, he now sees how important a role football played at that stage of his childhood. "Football is very good in situations like the ones I experienced. As a refugee child, with so many problems and a stressed family, football helps you forget. In situations like that, you can be consumed by all the bad thoughts, which isn’t good."
The next phase in Yousuf’s life played out in the USA, where his family found some longed-for stability and he and his brother Yohan were able to pursue their goal of becoming footballers.
Of course, the path was anything but straightforward. "It was hard to adapt to the U.S. because we had different values and traditions. Over time and with considerable effort, we sort of assimilated into American culture."
"We arrived when I was about 10, and right away my father began asking people he knew about football academies. I did trials with different sides, but it was only when I was 14 that I started serious training with youth teams," he added.
Then life took another turn. An uncle of his in Oaxaca, Mexico, called with some good news. "He’d got to know some people working at Alebrijes, a club in the Liga de Ascenso (Mexico’s second tier) and, knowing my brother and I were keen footballers, managed to get us a trial. We spent a year training with them with no guarantees until finally we were offered a contract."
I really like living in Mexico. I've been here for three years now and it's an important part of my life. I really enjoy the culture here, way of life and the tacos al pastor (pork tacos).
In the spotlight
Then came the most beautiful moment in his footballing journey, one that made all the effort worthwhile. The setting was a cup match against a top-division side. "I made my debut in 2019 against Toluca in the Copa MX, and it made all the struggles of my life worthwhile. There were about 15,000 people at the stadium, and they were a top team."
That moment of joy reached the USA, where his parents shared their children’s dreams of playing at the highest level. "My dad was a footballer but only for a short period. In his day, it wasn’t possible to live off football in Iraq. He spent four years as a professional but then got married at 22, when he quit football to focus on work and improving life for our family.
"Everything I know about football I learned from my dad, to always try to be happy so as to play well, to be positive. He was always giving me advice on my movement and things to do on the pitch. For him, it's also a dream that my brother and I are chasing our goal of playing in the first division. When we do well and succeed, he seems to take even more delight from it than we do."
Yousuf is now striving to establish himself with his new club Saltillo in the Mexican third tier and realise a dream that began in Iraq, has taken him halfway around the world and has sustained and anchored him during the most complicated periods of his life.
"In football there are many good and bad things. Sometimes when things aren’t going to plan, it can get inside your head, but I simply couldn't live without football."