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Flushing’s Mashriqi named to national team

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By being named to the U-14 United States National team, Mohammed Mashriqi is considered one of the top boys soccer players for his age. And yet, his soccer career began as part of a joke.

“When I was six I used to play basketball and one day my father and I stopped by for CYO registration and he asked me if I wanted to sign up for basketball or soccer,” Mashriqi recalled. “And I said soccer because I was just joking. But the next thing I know, he put me in soccer.”

And a mere eight years later, the Flushing resident — thanks in part to the dedication of his father Tahir Mashriqi and coaches like David Williams and John Benintendo — is well on his way to a very successful soccer career.

“I am proud, but he still has to work, he should work hard all the time,” said Tahir Mashriqi. “This is just the beginning. He’s the first player from New York to make the national team in two years so I’m proud of him. But for him, I still need more, to practice more and work hard.”

And Tahir Mashriqi should know. He was on the Afghanistan national team before fleeing the war-torn country in the midst of the Afghanistan War, a conflict between anti-Communist Afghan guerrillas and Afghan government and Russian forces that lasted 14 years and killed more than one million Afghans.

“For 15 years since I came to this country I didn’t touch the [soccer] ball. I came to this country as a refuge because of the war over there, I started working in a pizzeria, in a fried chicken restaurant for [my family],” he said. “I am educated, I graduated college in my country, but for me English is very hard. Everybody who comes here without knowing the English language cannot work in a good job right away.”

Finally, Tahir Mashriqi began to remember the sport he loved so dearly as he helped his eldest son, Sabir, improve as a sophomore goalkeeper at Flushing High School. Sabir went on to earn a full scholarship to Division I Long Island University.

Tahir Mashriqi also helped a young Mohammed get his start in the sport.

“When I went on the field, I was playing good and after that my father went to look for a better team and my brother was introduced to the owner of [Blau-Weiss] Gotschee,” Mohammed Mashriqi said of one of most prestigious soccer clubs in the country. “He introduced me too and I went and tried out. At first I was on the bench because I wasn’t that good, because I came from a lower level, but then I started to play better and get used to the kids.”

It was when he was playing for Gotschee under the direction of Benintendo when David Williams first saw Mashriqi play.

“As a youth of 10 or 11 years of age, he was dominating his age with another two or three kids,” said Williams, a native of Belgium who coached HBC, another top local club, at the time. “He was already a factor and a big asset for the team. Eventually everyone caught up, but his work ethic made him even better.”

Soon after, Williams left HBC to coach Mashriqi with Benintendo.

“He’s there at all the practices, he works hard on his own,” Williams said. “He’s very focused. I think he earned the right to be on the National team. He worked very hard for it and it’s up to him to enjoy it.”

Mashriqi also works with his father every day, going to nearby Queens College, as well as Kissena Park and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, to work on Mohammed’s fitness.

“Before we go to practice, we watch videos for what to work on, how to increase his speed, his reaction,” Tahir Mashriqi said. “After we watch the video, we talk about it. After that we go out for two hours to play.”

Playing for Gotschee — a team that won the State Cup from 1997-1999 and 2001 and was ranked 12th in the nation last year — has made him a much better player, Mashriqi said.

“When I first went there I was nothing,” he said. “My level wasn’t so high. They were all better than me. After a while when I started to play with them, I started to get better.”

In the last two years alone, Mashriqi moved up the soccer ladder quickly. He went from the State Olympic Development Program to the Regional ODP with about 450 others from the 12 to 15 states that make up Region I.

Last month, he advanced with about 120 others to the United States team’s national pool camp in Deerfield, Mass. where the top 20 players were selected to the U-14 National Team. Since then he has been moved from forward to a defensive midfield role.

“It’s great for the club, it’s great for the team, great for John and myself who are coaching,” said Williams. “Down the line this is what we’re shooting for — for kids to either make national teams or play Division I college soccer. It’s great that all the hard work has paid off.”

While he still has a long way to go, Williams said Mashriqi reminds him a bit of French superstar Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid and former Juventus star who was named FIFA’s Footballer of the Year in 1998 and 2000.

“I think he’s a very smart player,” Williams said. “He reads the game very well. He’s got very good speed, with and without the ball. As soon as he gets the ball, he thinks quickly. Everything is in motion. His footwork is very good; he’s got a very good touch on the ball. He can strike left and right foot no problem.”

But Tahir Mashriqi knows that while the accomplishment of making the national team is a phenomenal one, he also knows this is no time for Mohammed to rest on his laurels.

“The only way to achieve that goal is to practice,” he said. “At the end of the video, the coach said, ‘practice, practice, practice and practice more, this is the name of the game.’”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.

Updated 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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