Iraqi immigrant Shabilla named Fan of the Match

As anyone who has ever attended a Nashville SC match in person can attest, it’s customary for the club to recognize an outstanding performance on the pitch with the Man of the Match award. It is in this spirit that the Nashville Soccer Supporters Trust will select a Fan of the Match following each home date to recognize the breadth of the incredible supporters that come out to each NSC match and help will the team to victory week in and week out.

Few Nashville SC fans have seen the power of soccer first hand like Valair Shabilla. A native of Baghdad, Iraq, the Middle Tennessee State University graduate has found a home in Nashville and as well as a second family in the supporters’ end at First Tennessee Park, and after Tuesday night’s 4-0 win over Richmond, he was named Fan of the Match.

Shabilla, who fled Baghdad with his family during the Iraq War, vividly recalls the magical run by the Iraq national football team to the 2007 Asian Cup, which marked the first-ever major trophy for the Lions of Mesopotamia.

“In Iraq, soccer is such a big part of the community to the point that I can’t even describe it,” Shabilla explained. “A lot of people don’t know this, but the day that they played in the final, a lot of the violence pretty much stopped. Everybody sat down to watch the final. Everything stopped. Just seeing everybody get together over soccer in Iraq was just an eye-opening moment for me. That’s when I saw what this sport can mean.”

Shabilla’s time in his native country came to an end at the age of 12 as his family moved to Beirut as refugees and sought asylum in the United States.

“We moved to Lebanon, and I don’t mean Lebanon, Tennessee,” Shabilla said. “We were there for a couple of years, and we ended up in Nashville because of my aunt, who had already been in America for 20 years. She moved to Nashville and said there was more opportunity here, and then we came here in 2009, which was my freshman year of high school.”

Shabilla made a habit of attending his high school’s soccer games, but gradually fell away from the sport stateside as he moved on to college. However, he continued to be a fan overall, following Arsenal in the Premier League and checking in regularly to see how some of his favorite players were doing in MLS, including international superstars Thierry Henry and Kaka as well as Iraqi national team standout Justin Meram.

With his graduation and the ensuing announcement of professional soccer in Nashville, Shabilla was re-engaged with his adopted hometown and he’s been a regular at matches ever since.

“If there’s local soccer, I’m going to watch it,” Shabilla said. “It’s local and professional. I’m in. I’m watching, and while I think I would still be here if I didn’t know the Roadies, these people have become my family. I hang out with them just as much as I do with my best friends.”

Shabilla, who is heavily involved with the Roadies’ Soccer for the Nations initiative, is also proud of the welcoming atmosphere of NSC fans as well as of the Nashville community as a whole, and he’s looking forward to being a part of the growth of both going forward.

“I think a lot of people who aren’t here don’t know that Nashville is a very, very diverse city,” Shabilla said. “I think people expect to hear bad things when I tell them that I’m from Iraq and live in Tennessee, but it’s not. It’s amazing seeing everybody get together. I think that at one point at John Overton High School, we had something like 99 or 100 different nationalities pass through that school. I’m very happy to say that in the nine years that I’ve lived in America and in Middle Tennessee, that I’ve have way more positive interactions than negative ones.”

Clay Trainum