The Al-Askari Story: How an Iraqi Migrant Brought Soccer to Visalia

Mt Whitney's New Soccer Team

Sunday has finally arrived. After six days of work and school, the best part of the week is finally here. At River Way Sports Park, the grass is green, and the field’s lines are white. Everyone gathered has come from a different walk of life, but on Sundays we all come together to share one thing; soccer. The beautiful game is part of Visalia’s landscape. For those who play and admire the sport, leagues exist at all levels in this small town. However, this was not always the case. In Visalia, soccer was not played until 1967, which is considerably late compared to the rest of the nation. Just like other cities, migrant feet brought the beautiful game there. Unlike other cities, it was not European and or Latin American migrants that brought the game to Visalia, but rather Nahid “Ned” Al-Askari, an Iraqi national. The story of this town’s soccer origins is distinct from any other.

Our story begins half way around the world in the middle eastern country of Iraq. Iraq was under the territorial control of the Ottoman Empire going into the first World War (1914-1918). The Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany during the war, and was thus defeated. Defeat resulted in the collapse of the Empire’s vast regions. Syria was liberated following the collapse; however, Iraq soon fell under the control of the British through its occupation in Mesopotamia. These circumstances infuriated the people of Iraq, which led to a revolt in 1920.[1]

At this point, the British knew that they could not maintain control of the Iraqi people who wished to be self-governed. Elections were then organized for the country, and many candidates were presented to the British by native Iraqi tribes. Fearing the anti-British sentiment of those suggested, the British decided to look elsewhere for someone to accommodate their influence in the region. With the help of Syria-based Iraqis Nuri Said and Ja’far al-‘Askeri[2]—allies of the British during the war— the British pushed for the appointment of Fasil I as King of Iraq.[3] The roles of Said and al-‘Askeri in this political stunt proved to be a pivotal moment in our story. Nahid (Ned) Al-Askari, a later nephew to these two men, says that two of his uncles, Nuri Said and Ja’far al-‘Askeri, “fixed” the election in 1920.[4] Results of the election were overwhelming as Fasil I obtained ninety-six percent of the population’s approval, albeit with his opponents being silenced.[5] This initiated the Iraqi Hashemite Monarchy. Due to Al-Askari’s uncles’ actions, his family was placed into Iraqi’s governing bureaucracy—a status that he would then be born into.

Seven years after the collusion that instigated the Hashemite Monarchy, Al-Askari was born in the Iraqi province of Baghdad. His father, Tahsin Al-Askari, held many positions in the Iraqi government, including Governor to several provinces, Ambassador to Egypt, and even one term as Prime Minister.[6] British colonial influence in Iraq included football (soccer), which Al-Askari grew up playing.[7] Although playing soccer may have been common amongst other children, it was clear that Al-Askari did not have an average Iraqi childhood. “We were trained for these positions from our earliest youth… Just as the king was a hereditary position, so were the high government posts handed down from son to son,” he reflected during a 1973 interview with the Visalia Times Delta.[8]

His father’s high government status came with many complications, as Al-Askari found out at an early age. When he was just five years old, Iraq obtained its independence from Great Britain, which was followed by the death of Fasil I just a year later.[9] These circumstances resulted in a battle of supremacy within the ranks of the Iraqi bureaucracy. Through multiple coup d’états, Al-Askari’s family was forced to flee to Egypt until power was eventually restored by those loyal to the Hashemite Monarchy.[10]

Continued political instability inspired Al-Askari to travel as he grew older. Due to his family’s high status and virtually endless wealth, Al-Askari was free to travel with no concern about the cost.[11] Al-Askari used his travels to further his education and attended prestigious universities all over the world. At sixteen, he attended the American University of Beirut in Lebanon before moving to Europe to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then Cambridge University in England.[12] His experiences in Europe–where soccer dominates the sporting scene–undoubtedly influenced his passion and love for the beautiful game that he grew up playing; a feeling that stuck with him throughout his life.

The trajectory of Al-Askari’s life changed dramatically at the age of twenty-one. His father, a vital member of the Iraqi ruling class, passed away in 1948. Realizing the repercussions of this, he decided to leave the political responsibility that would have fallen to him and instead immigrated to the United States.[13] After arriving in the U.S., he continued to further his education, thanks to financing from his uncles, who remained in elite political positions back in Iraq. For the next fourteen years he attended Universities throughout California.[14] In 1958, the political instability of Iraq—the reason for Al-Askari’s departure—reached its peak when the Hashemite Monarchy was overthrown indefinitely. As a result, his family’s properties were seized and his uncle Nuri was assassinated, thus ending his seemingly endless supply of money.[15]

With this painful chain of events, Al-Askari was left with no money, and a hostile homeland. For the first time in his life, he had to get a job, but he also decided to finish up his education.[16] In 1960, during his final four years in college, Al-Askari also became a U.S. citizen, a clear indication of his choice not to go back home.[17] Furthermore, after obtaining his bachelor’s degree in social studies from the University of California at Berkeley, and his master’s degree from San Francisco State University, he pursued his teaching credentials in 1963.[18] Having fully established himself in American society, Al-Askari was ready to start a new life, a life far distant from that of his youthful upbringings, and a life fully dependent on no one but himself.

With a well-rounded education behind him, Al-Askari wanted to start his new life with a new career. Initially, Al-Askari started teaching in the Bay Area, but his experience was unfulfilling. His first teaching job was at San Francisco’s Mission High School, before he moved on to Pleasant Hill High School.[19] Although he was starting his life anew, Al-Askari could not help but miss his home back in Iraq. His desire for happiness in this new American life was unfortunately accompanied by a void of homesickness.

Al-Askari finally found a place to call home: Visalia, which is situated in the San Joaquin Valley in California. In 1965, he started a teaching job at Mount Whitney High School. Although Visalia was a small agriculture town, Al-Askari was enticed by the area because it “remind[ed] him of the countries bordering the Mediterranean.”[20] It was in Visalia, a town 7,526 miles away from his native home in Baghdad that Al-Askari finally decided to settle down.

teacher from iraq on whitney faculty

Visalia welcomed Al-Askari with open arms, and he was quickly recognized for his family’s history. A 1965 story in the Visalia Times Delta read, “Teacher From Iraq On Whitney Faculty,” which briefly mentioned his relation to the former Iraqi Monarchy, and expressed his joy of teaching in Visalia as compared to the Bay Area.[21] One of Al-Askari’s former students, a self-proclaimed “Screw up,” Larry Beiderwell recalls him as “a very thoughtful person, more thoughtful than any other teacher at Mt. Whitney… he seemed to just care more, even though I did not deserve it.”[22]

Despite his praise by students, and his warm welcome by the school and town, Al-Askari considered himself a loner of sorts. While he was adjusting to life in his new home, he realized that soccer, the sport he grew up playing, was nowhere to be found in that part of the Valley. Soccer was, however, being played in cities not too far away, such as Fresno and Selma.[23] To offset this loneliness, he begged the school to start a soccer program.[24] After three years of persistence, the school finally conceded. Thus, in 1967, Al-Askari founded the first soccer team in Visalia at Mt. Whitney High School. This feat did not come easily, because the sport of soccer was, for all intents and purposes, foreign to the people of Visalia.

Al-Askari patiently accepted the challenge of developing a soccer team and coaching players who had virtually zero experience playing the game. Although he was awarded the opportunity to start the soccer program, Mt. Whitney did not recognize it as an official sport of the school, despite the team being pictured in the school’s 1967 yearbook as “Mt. Whitney’s New Soccer Team.”[25] Recognition for the sport did not happen for four years; during that time, though, Al-Askari was able to build the towns interest in the beautiful game. In a 1970 article in the Visalia Times Delta, Mt. Whitney’s early soccer teams were described as merely “a bunch of boys meeting after school to kick the ball back and forth.”[26] This depiction of the sport was actually not uncommon throughout the United States. According to Matthew Taylor, an English politician and soccer enthusiast, soccer was essentially crowded out in the U.S. due to the multitude of American sports such as football, basketball, and baseball during the nineteenth century. Additionally, he says that soccer is considered a foreign game, and therefore “Un-American.”[27] The sport was so foreign to Visalia that Al-Askari had to regularly remind the kids that they cannot touch the ball with their hands.[28] In 1971, the Visalia Times Delta reported that Al-Askari’s 1967 team consisted of only ten players, and in 1968, they were only able to play three games due to the lack of competition.[29]

These formative years in Visalia’s soccer history were by no means easy. In fact, the young Mt. Whitney team also faced many financial issues. In the years before recognition, the soccer team was forced to borrow freshman football jerseys, and baseball socks for uniforms because they could not afford their own.[30] Additionally, the teams practice net was made out of old volleyball nets that were laced together, and their corner flags were just wooden dowels with a red rag tied at the end. These limitations did not stop Al-Askari or the early participants in Visalia’s early soccer experiences, and their perseverance eventually paid off.

Three years after Al-Askari pioneered Mt. Whitney’s soccer program, his 1970 team proved to be one for the record books. The young Mt. Whitney team finished their season with a 7-0-1 recorded, all while not conceding a single goal.[31] In their undefeated season, they beat well-established high school teams from Fresno such as Hoover and Roosevelt. The team was also able to pull off victories against local college teams, College of the Sequoias and Reedley College.[32] At the end of that season, the team was recognized by the Visalia Recreation Department and awarded plaques for their remarkable achievement.[33] Despite the adversity that Al-Askari and the Mt. Whitney team faced coming into their 1970 season, they proved that soccer was for Visalia, and that soccer was there to stay. To top off the team’s unforgettable season, Mt. Whitney finally recognized soccer as an official school sport and was awarded a budget of $400.[34] This turn of events not only changed Mt. Whitney’s soccer program, it created a domino effect, which spread throughout Visalia.Visalia yearbook soccer image

Building on Mt. Whitney’s undefeated season, Al-Askari worked to make 1970 the “Year of Soccer,” at least in Visalia. Al-Askari had some clear objectives. First and foremost, he wanted to see the formation of a high school league.[35] This first goal was simply to make competition more frequent and easily accessible for Mt. Whitney. Al-Askari’s second goal, however, was a little more ambitious. He wanted to start a youth soccer program, which would start developing players from a younger age.[36] Although these aspirations grew out of the emotions of finally seeing his team get recognized as a school sport after having an undefeated season, they were not unobtainable.

The fruition of this vision was sadly not realized in Visalia’s “Year of Soccer.” However, one more positive still came out at the end of the year. Mt. Whitney had already influenced the creation of high school teams in Porterville, Monache, and Clovis, but in December of 1970, the Visalia Times Delta ran a story announcing the formation of another Visalia soccer team. The team was organized at Redwood High school—Mt. Whitney’s cross-town rivals.[37]

Visalia’s soccer community was never the same after 1970. Al-Askari’s establishment of soccer grew rapidly in those first three years, but it was nothing comparted to what came next. As Visalia grew as a town, so too did its soccer. Looking back at those early years, Al-Askari remembers the school laughing at his plea to start a team, but now soccer is played in the community more than any other sport.[38] Soccer has since spread to all middle and high schools throughout Visalia. Recreational leagues have also been established for both kids and adults, along with the formation of club teams for boys and girls. Al-Askari coached the Mt. Whitney soccer team for fourteen years while he continued to teach. After making his mark in history as the man who brought soccer to Visalia, Al-Askari passed away in 2010 at the age of 83. His impact in the soccer community is clear, but his memory must now be preserved.

The significance of Al-Askari’s story is not the way he was able to bring soccer to Visalia, but the reason why he did. As an immigrant, Al-Askari found it hard to reestablish himself in Visalia, despite his warm welcoming. Although he was admired for his family’s rich history, he still found it hard to assimilate into the fabric of society. Taking matters into his own hands, Al-Askari wanted to do what came natural: soccer. After realizing that the sport he loved and admired so much did not exist within that town, he decided to do something about it. He patiently pleaded for the formation of a school soccer team, which he was eventually rewarded. He started off with ten kids barely learning to play the sport, and within three years he coached an undefeated team. From that point on, his influence on soccer in Visalia grew, eventually leading to what it is today. Al-Askari’s efforts in his new home did more than just bring soccer to Visalia; it made him a vital member of the community. He was no longer recognized as just a foreigner with a crazy past. He was remembered as a teacher and as a coach.

Tyler Caffee is an undergraduate history major at California State University, Fresno. The youngest of three siblings, Tyler aspires to become a high school history teacher. He has previously contributed as part of our Unofficial Archives series.  This piece is part of Fresno State’s new public history and archive project about the history of fútbol in the San Joaquin Valley.  To learn more or contribute images/stories email Prof. Romeo Guzman at romeog@csufresno.edu

References

[1] Simon, Reeva S. “The Hashemite ‘Conspiracy’: Hashemite Unity Attempts, 1921-1958.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 5, no. 3 (1974): 314-27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/162381, 314-315.

[2] Conflict of sources: In the Carnal article from the Visalia Times Delta, Nuri Said and Ja’far al-‘Askeri, are referred to as, “Nuri Assaid and Jaafar Al-Askari.” The sources match in context, but differ in spelling.

[3] Simon, 315.

[4] Carnal, Jim. “Visalia Teacher Learned His Iraqi History the Hard Way.” Visalia Times Delta, March 19, 1984, 15.

[5] Simon, 316.

[6] Carnal, 15.

[7] Novin, Mike. “Sportscence.” Visalia Times Delta, March 3, 1970, 8.

[8] Gindick, Tia. “Restless Spirit Draws Arab To Visalia.” Visalia Times Delta, February 8, 1973, 6.

[9] Carnal, 15.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gindick, 6.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Carnal, 15.

[14] Gindick, 6.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Carnal, 15.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 16.

[20] Gindick, 6.

[21] Carnal, 16.

[22] Beiderwell, Larry E. “Interview with Larry E. “Interview with Larry Beiderwell.” Telephone interview by author. January 26, 2018.

[23] Novin, 8.

[24] Carnal, 16.

[25] Mt. Whitney High School, The Oak, (Graduating Class of 1967, 1967), Tulare County Library, Annie R. Mitchell History Room.

[26] McDaniel, Becky. “Soccer Team Finally Earns Recognition.” Visalia Times Delta, March 31, 1970, 35.

[27] Taylor, Matthew. “Transatlantic Football: Rethinking the Transfer of Football from Europe to the USA, C. L880-c. L930s.” Ethnologie Française 41, no. 4 (2011): 645-54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41318945, 646.

[28] Novin, 8.

[29] Skeklian, Myron. “Soccer Enthusiasm Grows On Mt. Whitney Campus.” Visalia Times Delta, January 26, 1971, 29.

[30] McDaniel, 35.

[31] Skeklian, 29.

[32] Novin, 8.

[33] McDaniel, 35.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Novin, 8.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Montion, Robert. “Redwood Soccer Team Organized.” Visalia Times Delta, December 15, 1970, 33.

[38] Carnal, 16.

 

Author: Tropics of Meta

We are legion.

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