In 1949, at the age of 16, the late Youra Eshaya joined the Employees Soccer Team in Habbanniah where he gained great experience playing with the great Aram Karam and making one of the best duos with Ammo Baba.
In 1953, he left for Britain after being scouted by Bristol Rovers of England.
After returning to Iraq in 1955, he joined the Iraqi Air Force Soccer Team and in time he was on the Iraqi National Team. He stayed with the Air Force Team until 1971 when he retired from playing. He was mostly known for his play making talent, speed and incredible stamina.
His great career with Assyrian and non Assyrian teams was highlighted with over 75 international games.
Youra was born in Iran in 1933 to Eshaya Pera and Batishwa Benyamin. The family moved to Iraq in mid 1930s and settled in Maharatha Lines in Hinaidi, where Youra's father found work in a NAAFI canteen. In 1937 the family then moved to Habbaniya along with the rest of the Hinaidi Assyrian and Armenian civilians and the Assyrian Levies employed by the Royal Air Force.
When Youra was of age to begin his schooling at the late Raabi Yacoub's R.A.F. Union School, he also started kicking a tennis ball around and playing "football" with his schoolmates and the neighborhood kids. The boy had much love and energy for the game, and hardly was he into his teens when observant eyes began to notice him.
In 1948, Aram Karam, team captain, placed Youra, 15, on his Levy Civilian soccer team, in the forward line. Aram, several years Youra's senior, was then already a top footballer and was, on January 28, 1952, dubbed "Iraq's Greatest Footballer" in The Iraq Times by Andrious Mama Jotyar, a local freelance contributor. During the same year, Youra also captained the Junior team of the R.A.F. Assyrian Employees' Club, which won the junior cup. Realizing Youra's soccer talent and potential, the Employees' Club then snatched him the next year for their center forward. Youra clerked for the R.A.F. and played soccer for the Employees' Club and the C.C. (Civil Cantonment) Select teams for the next several years.
Soccer Skill and Popularity
Although most of Habbaniya's Assyrian footballers were good players, Youra's progress was last and in his very first three years he out-shone most of them. He loved football and played the game with gusto. He was full of energy and worked hard for his team's victory, not his own. He was a constructive player, unselfish, flitting all over the field like a butterfly, collecting and distributing the ball, creating scoring chances for his fellow-forwards. And his constant moving about made him elusive to pin down.
Unlike Aram Karam's famous long-range cannonball shots, Youra's shots were short, and often neat and accurate. Even though he usually played as center-forward or at inside-right, Youra wasn't basically a scorer. He moved between the forward and the defense lines, pursuing and retrieving the ball and feeding the scorers. He would often pass the ball to a better-placed teammate and even in the penalty box rather than take a chance on netting it himself.
Youra had a small but agile body. Although only 5'4" tall, he sometimes beat taller opponents to a header, the ability of which, he said, he had learned by constant practice -- leaping for and heading clothes lines in the Cantonment! Because of his small size, he was sometimes bullied by bigger opponents. But Youra's small body was a live wire, sparking with energy and slippery as an eel!
"Don't you get exhausted running around so much?" I once asked him.
"No!" he replied emphatically. "I tire more when I am waiting for the ball than when I am playing with it."
Amusing Dribbling Wizard
As a dribbler, Youra was a wizard! He was nimble, steady and always the master of the situation. He once told me that he learned his dribbling skill from Youel Gewargis, another great Assyrian footballer of the Habbaniya and Baghdad days.
Youra was shy, but he had a genuine warm smile, and he was friendly with everyone, and everybody liked him. Before Ammo Baba's soccer talent began to surface in 1951-52, Youra became a very popular player in Habbaniya while still in his teens, and I, another local freelance contributor of sports reports, named him "Most Popular Footballer in Habbaniya" in a feature article published in the Christmas 1951 magazine of The Iraq Times.
"What do you think is the reason for your popularity?" I had asked him.
Youra bowed his head for a moment in thought. "I think it is because of my dribbling," he replied. "My tricks amuse the people." Actually, there was more to it than that. Youra did not drive the spectators wild with excitement as Aram Karam and, later, Ammo Baba did with their amazing scoring power, but he was a brilliant dribbler, a persistent and tireless retriever, a clever schemer, an intelligent distributor as well as an amusing performer, attracting the spectator's eye and capturing his heart! People loved to watch his football wizardry.
The Soccer-Crazy Dreamer
No player loved football more than Youra did! In October 1951, Youra broke his nose in a game a few days before his team was to play in Basra against Basra Select. Everyone thought Youra couldn't play. But not Youra! He quickly had nose surgery at the British Hospital and left, with a patched-up nose, three days later with his team for Basra. On the train someone had dropped a cigarette butt into his kitbag, which had caught fire. But broken nose, burned kit or hell or high water, the soccer-crazy Youra reached Basra and played -- in his heat-shriveled football boots! -- sharing in the scoring of one of his team's two goals! When I once asked him if the rumor was true that he "played" football even in his dreams, Youra kicked a pebble, smiled sheepishly and said, "Yes, I have often jumped out of bed in my sleep shouting to Youel or Aram to pass me the ball!"
Youra was a very good table-tennis player, winning the Employees' Club championship for 1951-52. He also played hockey, and he won his very first boxing bout in 1952. Youra left Habbaniya in July 1952 to establish himself elsewhere in the country. But after a short absence he returned, homesick, and rejoined his teams.Chaotic Arrival
During his arrival in London on the boat train from France, Youra created a commotion! Equipped by the memory of a photograph, 'a travel agency man was to meet and greet Youra at London's Victoria Station to escort him to Paddington to catch a train to Temple Meads in Bristol. But he missed him in the crowd! Mr. John Gummow, Bristol Rovers' secretary, waited at the Bristol station for the "handsome, tanned desert boy" with a photo of Youra in his hand, but Youra was not on the train! He phoned the agency. "Sorry," he was told. "Your desert footballer has slipped through Victoria and vanished! He is somewhere in London." Inspired by the spirit of adventure, Youra had decided to make his own way to Bristol on his own time!
Ordered "Go Home"
Youra was admitted to England on a one-month visitor's permit. Through the intervention of his club manager, Mr. Bert Tann, and other officials, however, he was granted two one-month extensions. But when his time was up, he was ordered to leave the country. In the short period of three months Youra had made such a good impression on the press and the football public that the Home Office's "Go Home" order to Youra created an uproar in both the press and the football circles. Dozens of people offered Youra a job so that he would not be a drag on the labor market, and the Bristol Rovers Club and the Bristol Evening World enlisted the help of members of parliament. Mr. Tann saw Sir Walter Monkton, Minister of Labor and MP for Bristol West, and Mr. W. A. Wilkins, another MP and a football fan, both of whom had a talk with the Home Secretary. "And what will Youra, or the airmen at Habbaniya, or the local Iraqi population, or even the Rovers' players who have taken this swarthy, quiet lad into their hearts and homes think of British justice if the Home Office pushes him ceremoniously back home?" asked the Bristol Evening World.
Granted Residence and Work
The hue and cry and the impassioned appeals finally softened up the Home Secretary, who finally agreed to let Youra stay permanently and play football. He was also granted employment by the National Coal Board and he started working as a miner at Pensford Colliery, Somerset, on November 7,1954.
Delighted Players and Fans
At first Youra played for the Western League team of Bristol Rovers, which was their 3rd team but which called for a high standard of play. Rovers Reserves team was a nursery from which players were picked to play for the higher league teams, and Youra played as an amateur because he was not allowed by the Football Association to play as a paid professional until he had had at least two years' qualified residency in England.
In a short time Youra proved that he could play football as well as any of his English teammates, and the officials were delighted by his talent and future potential, even though some thought his small size might be a problem. But this did not worry Youra because he was confident he could make the grade. Youra quickly proved his worth and was promoted to higher grades. He made friends and was popular among the local football circles. The local press said "he has a lot of football in him," and he was dubbed "Ali Baba," "Live Wire ... .. slippery as an eel," "fastest forward" of the match, "extremely fast and clever in possession," "the footballer who can do everything but the Indian rope trick," and other expressions.
Returned Home and Joined RIAF
But after 16 months of working and playing football for the Bristol Rovers Club, Youra was persuaded to return home. He was pestered by his family's "come-back-home" appeals and by the Royal Iraqi Air Force Commander, Brigadier Kadhum Al-Obaidi, who offered to obtain for Youra and his family members Iraqi naturalization and a place for him on the Force as a warrant officer provided he play soccer for the RIAF team. At first Youra resisted, but finally relented and returned home to Baghdad in December 1955, only months short of his eligibility to play professional football in England! Youra and his family members were Iranian subjects, and obtaining Iraqi naturalization wasn't a particularly easy procedure. But within a very short time Brigadier Al-Obaidi arranged for their papers to be processed and Youra was admitted to the Force as a warrant officer and joined the RIAF soccer team.
Spectators Cheered and Chanted
Soon after returning, Youra played his first two games in January 1956 for the Iraq Select team, one against Turkey's Mersden Club and the other against Teheran Select. They were thrilling games, watched by tens of thousands and broadcast live over Baghdad radio. Two other top Assyrian players, Aummo Baba and the late Aummo Samson, were on the Iraqi team, but the spectators were impatient to watch Youra's English-gained soccer skill -- and they were not disappointed! In the first game, the Iraqis virtually played the Turks off the field, thrashing them 6-O! Although it was Ammo Baba who scored three of the six goals, it was really Youra's day! The crowds were delighted by the little football wizard's fast and brisk moves, clever dribbling and intelligent distribution, which were the roots of every goal scored. Playing in mid-field, he prompted his fellow forwards on, often changing a defensive move into an attack and netting one of the goals himself. Another goal was scored by Ammo Samson.
And in the second match, a week later, the Iraqis beat the Iranians 5-3. Both Youra and Ammo Baba played the games of their lives! As Youra moved all over the field and engineered most of the dangerous moves, Ammo lead his fellow forwards into repeated attacks against the Iranian goal. The fast and tricky Ammo scored four rousing goals and created a pandemonium of excitement in the Scouts Stadium! And at the end of the game, the Iraqi fans engulfed the three Assyrian players and a few other players, cheering and kissing them, and carried them off the field upon their shoulders. Al-Bilad newspaper headlined its story: "20 Thousand Spectators Cheer New Iraqi Football Wizard Youra, Successor of Naser 'Chicko'" and The Iraq Times' banner read: "Ammo Baba Scores Four Goals for Iraq Against Teheran."
National Champion and International Player
Youra played soccer for the Iraqi Air Force and the military and national select teams for almost 15 years. He took part in dozens of international matches, including several in an Assyrian Sports Club all-Assyrian team, both in Iraq and outside, thrilling and entertaining tens and tens of thousands with his skillful and loveable style and glorifying the names Assyrian and Iraqi. But when he married a Swedish girl in 1971, he was suspended from the Force because the Iraqi Baath Government had enacted a rule against Iraqi military men marrying non-Arab foreign women. He was later "unfrozen" and transferred to the Iraqi Habbaniya air base as a sports officer to coach and oversee the training of military sportsmen. Realizing his soccer playing days were over, however, he resigned from the Force shortly thereafter.
Husband, Father and Coach
In 1972 Youra left Iraq to make his home in Goteborg, Sweden, where he raised a family, worked and coached soccer for 20 years, and finally died coaching and training a bunch of Assyrian soccer hopefuls, far away from his ancestral homeland, his sisters, his own people and adoring fans, a stranger among strangers, in a strange land!
Unknown Renowned Grave
Youra's body may lie in a well-built marked grave, in a scenic cemetery, surrounded by green grass and multi-colored flowers, but how many people will visit and "smoke" his grave with frankincense and mourn his passing? And, unfortunately, Youra Eshaya will not be the only noted Assyrian whose grave will remain lonely and unknown in a strange, far-away foreign land!