‘Nothing can stop this kid’: USA blind soccer team frontman Ahmed Shareef – The Guardian
As a child, he lost his eyesight to a bomb in Baghdad. Now a New Yorker, Ahmed Shareef is a member of the first USA blind soccer team that’s targeting Paralympic gold at LA 2028
The traditions were almost religion in Ahmed Shareef’s home in Baghdad. When soccer was on television, everything stopped. His father, siblings, uncles, cousins, whoever was in the vicinity gathered around the table and watched the beautiful game, each viewer loyal to their own squad.
For the young Shareef, Barcelona was his team, and his loyalty was unwavering. One day he would play, making his name internationally like his heroes on the pitch.
“I used to play soccer, way early, and my dream was to be on a professional team, but losing my sight didn’t give me that dream,” said Shareef, now 25.
In 2004, in the heat of the United States-Iraq war, one of many bombs went off in Baghdad. Seven-year-old Shareef was in the crossfire as he walked home from school. He heard the explosion, turned the wrong way, and lost his sight and right arm.
Eighteen years later, Shareef, now an American citizen living in Staten Island, New York, was named to the first ever USA blind soccer men’s national team.
“People say, you’re blind, how do you play soccer like that?” said Shareef. “There’s a barrier there … I got around it. Now I’m on the national team. Blind guy with one arm, born in Iraq, lost his sight during the war, the US-Iraq war, now he wears USA on his shirt. I can’t tell you how that happened.”
It’s a tale out of Hollywood, but most directors would turn it away, saying it’s too far-fetched. Yet it all started when Shareef’s injuries were relayed by a US military major to Elissa Montanti, the founder of the Global Medical Relief Fund, initially launched to aid children who lost limbs due to war or natural disasters, asking her to help. Montanti got Shareef to the States and went to work.
“I contacted 20 different doctors, exhausted every possibility of him seeing,” Montanti recalls. “I got him prosthetic eyes, a prosthetic arm, he was here for several months and went back. They come back as they outgrow their prosthetics, so he came back again, and when he came back again when he was 15, I asked his mother if I could keep him because he has no future there.”
“I’ll give you a scenario,” Shareef explains. “If I didn’t stay here and I went back to Iraq, I’m facing three things. The first thing is I would not have any education. Two, every country has their own culture, but my country’s culture would not have supported me as a person with a disability. There’s no services for the blind, you can’t walk outside with a cane, and people are doubting you. There’s nothing there for me. Third, safety.”
Shareef’s mother agreed, and Montanti became his legal guardian, putting him in Curtis High School, where he graduated and still works as a jazz teacher and consultant to international students. He made it. The American Dream in the flesh, a kid like any other who just wanted to be a professional athlete and a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
He currently sings and plays keyboards for his group, Blind Ambition. As for the athlete part, in 2018, he got an email regarding the launch of a blind soccer program by the US Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). Shareef’s life had come full circle. After following up with USABA, he was invited to a camp in San Diego in 2019. In 2022, he was named to Team USA.
“His understanding of the gameplay is really, really good,” said Team USA head coach Katie Smith. “We’ve seen a lot of progress, and at this national camp, he honestly blew us away. He was an incredible defender and showed his defensive skills and tackling skills on the field, along with his ability to orient to the sound of the ball and get the ball to his teammates.”
The 12-member squad is being prepped to compete in the 2028 Paralympic Games which will be held in Los Angeles, earning Team USA an automatic entry. In the meantime, friendlies will begin in 2023 with tournaments to follow as the players get acclimated to working together in a sport that has many similarities to the soccer everyone knows – Brazil are the team to beat – yet so many differences in the 5v5 setup, such as the use of steel beads inside the ball so the players can hear it, eye shades to ensure a level playing field, and sighted goaltenders. It’s a physical game, and some of the skill displayed would put sighted players to shame.
And finally, Ahmed Shareef has a chance to chase his dream on the pitch. It makes you wonder what he would choose if given an option of a gold medal in 2028 or a record deal for Blind Ambition.
“Music is always gonna be there, but if you asked me which one I would pick, I can’t tell you because soccer gives me a different feeling, and music is a different feeling, too.”
He pauses, then laughs.
“I would do both. I would get the gold medal and sign the record deal.”
Surprised? Montanti isn’t.
“Nothing can stop this kid,” she said. “Nothing.”