In one sense, being knocked to the ground by Hungarian journalist Petra Laszlo may be the best thing that’s happened to Osama Abdul Mohsen in years. Days later, the Syrian refugee was getting a hero’s welcome in Spain, and his son Zaid was hanging out with Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
When I arrived at his plain, interior apartment in the industrial city of Getafe, just south of Madrid, Osama Abdul Mohsen didn't want to talk. We scheduled the interview days earlier with the help of his translator, but Mohsen had had enough of the media circus that had sprung up around him.
"In the mornings, I have language classes," he said through his translator. "Then journalists, journalists, journalists."
Indeed, in the days after Mohsen was filmed being tripped by a local camerawoman while fleeing a Hungarian refugee camp with his 7-year-old son Zaid in his arms, the video went viral. With that, Mohsen went from being an anonymous refugee to a media hero with a completely different set of concerns.
Lage in #Roeszke #Hungary weiter schlimm - Polizei überfordert - Flüchtlinge durchbrechen Polizeikette - Verletzte! pic.twitter.com/GlMGqGwABb
— Stephan Richter (@RichterSteph) September 8, 2015
But Mohsen’s story started like that of many of the thousands of Syrians who’ve fled to Europe.
"From Syria we went to Turkey, where we stayed for a year and a half," Mohsen said. "Then to Greece by boat. Then Macedonia. Serbia. Hungary. Austria. Germany."
The Coach From Syria
Then the video was seen by millions, and social media filled in his life story. Mohsen had spent two decades coaching soccer in Syria, including a stint as the head coach of the Al-Fotuwa team in the city of Deir Ezzor.
My players and other coaches from Syria saw the video and they commented online that I was a coach, a good coach.Osama Abdul Mohsen
"I was a coach in the first division in Syria. It was the best team in Syria," he said.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but the team did win the league championship twice. That all stopped with the Syrian civil war. A lot of the team’s players were killed, Mohsen said, but some are still playing.
"Some went to Europe, some to Turkey, and very few stayed in Syria," he said. "Some ended up in Germany, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Holland… My players and other coaches from Syria saw the video and they commented online that I was a coach, a good coach."
Once Mohsen’s identity had been revealed, Spain’s El Mundo newspaper profiled the Syrian coach. That story drew the attention of the head of the school division at CENAFE, Spain’s soccer coach training body. Within days, Moshen had been offered a job at CENAFE and free housing. As a long-time fan of nearby Real Madrid, Mohsen was intrigued.
"I didn’t know how Spain was or anything," he said. "But, I always wanted to come to Spain, with Real Madrid and everything. So when the offer came I didn’t think twice."
A New Spotlight
When he got to Spain, he discovered that the media circus had reached a new level of frenzy. Mohsen ran into scrums of reporters at the train stations in Barcelona and Madrid. Then, once he was settled in Getafe, Real Madrid’s president invited the new refugee hero over for a photo opp and to meet the team at the Bernabeu stadium. The next day, 7-year-old Zaid got to run onto the field with Real superstar Cristiano Ronaldo for warmups before a game against Granada.
Amidst all this excitement, Mohsen’s Spanish studies haven’t gone so well, he said. He laughed as he tried to show off some of his new vocabulary, "Gracias. Mola. Uno. Dos, Cinco."
Once he’s got the language down, he’ll start to coach locally. He plans to put in place the tactical scheme he developed over his years in Syria. At one level, it’s based on something he admires about Real Madrid.
"I like to move to ball a lot in the middle," Mohsen said.
Mohsen’s story seems like a social media fairytale, but the happy ending isn’t yet written. His wife and two other children are still in Turkey. And the day he met the Real Madrid squad, the PYD Syrian Kurdish party accused him of being a member of the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. It’s an accusation he denies, and the charges against him have been discredited by the New York Times. But it’s another question to face.
As I left, Mohsen apologized in English for his original refusal to speak.
"I’m sorry for first time when you come," he said. "Anything you need, I’m ready."
As he said this, Mohsen had the sunken eyes of someone who hasn’t slept in, well, forever. Mohsen wants a normal life. But that might take a while.
This segment aired on September 26, 2015.