Nashville SC

How Nashville became Hany Mukhtar’s city

By Mikeie Honda Reiland

Editor’s note: A short version of this story ran in the Nashville Scene. You can find that version here.

Hany Mukhtar can point to the exact moment when his life changed forever. He can trace much of what happened after – every misfire, each mistake, the triumphs and choices he’d eventually make – back to exactly one goal. 

It happened on a summer night in Budapest, in a stadium a stone’s throw from the Danube. In the 39th minute of the 2014 Under-19 Euro finals, Germany’s Marc Stendera received a pass on the right wing. As Stendera ran onto the ball, his teammate Hany Mukhtar raced from the penalty spot to the near post, darting between two Portuguese center backs. Stendera swung the ball in, and Hany walled off his marker and met it on the bounce. 

When the ball found the net, Hany’s life split in two. That goal created a before and after. Previously, he’d been a wonderkid, gifted but a curiosity, more theory than proof. Two years before, at 17, he became the second-youngest player in Hertha Berlin’s history when he debuted at the Allianz Arena against Bayern Munich. He faced a midfield of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Toni Kroos. Although Hany had captained Hertha’s Under-17s to a title, he played sparingly for the first team. 

After Budapest, Hany was no longer strictly potential energy, a ball of fine clay. He’d scored the game-winning goal for his country in an international final. Soon after the whistle, Hany met the president of Benfica, Portugal’s largest club. Next winter, would Hany want to leave Berlin to play in Lisbon? Benfica usually qualified for the Champions League, the game’s brightest stage. The president proposed a five-year deal with better wages than Hertha could offer, enough to afford a beautiful apartment in the City of Light.  

The city is Europe’s finishing school for elite young talent. In recent years, Enzo Fernández (€121 million, Chelsea), Bruno Fernandes (€63 million, Manchester United), and Darwin Nuñez (€80 million, Liverpool) have used Lisbon clubs as a trampoline, bouncing straight from Liga Portugal to the top of the Premier League. In January 2015, Hany entered the same high-stakes pipeline, the way station to the stars, the place you go right before you make it, make it. 

Have you ever been 19 years old? Did you feel unstoppable? Hany believed, with good reason, that he was about to get everything he’d ever worked for. Everyone around him told him he was going places. And he was. Further even than the 1,700 miles between Lisbon and his family’s home in South Berlin. 

He didn’t go exactly where he expected. He was the best player in entire leagues and he spent months sitting on the bench. He crossed the continent to the proletarian suburbs of Copenhagen, he flew west even of Lisbon, all the way to Tennessee. He knew that somewhere, he’d find coaches and a city that believed in him, a place where he could prove to himself that he was who he thought he was. 

Somewhere, like Berlin, that he could call home. 

Today, Hany Mukhtar might be the best creative player in MLS. Transfermarkt sets his value at €12 million, nearly €10 million more than what Nashville SC paid for him in 2020. If he wants, as reporters often remind him, he’s earned a move back to Europe. Hany knows this theoretical transfer has an expiration date. Each time he’s asked the question, he responds candidly: he will never say never to a return to the Bundesliga, but he isn’t aching to leave. To understand why, you must know what he’s been through. 

Many mixed-race people will tell you that to be part of two things is to be whole of neither. But South Berlin is built from such eclectic parts that Hany – the son of a Sudanese father, Abubakr, and a Polish-German mother, Ursula – always felt he belonged. South Berlin is where refugees moved after the war, where Erasmus kids tend to rent flats. An airport looms over Tempelhof, where the Mukhtar family still lives. The Nazis built it as the symbol of their empire, but since its decommission, it’s served as a center for Syrian refugees. Now, its grounds are a public park where families cook barbecue, immigrants play pickup soccer, people fly kites and tend community gardens – cultural and personal expression set against a dark backdrop. When Hany left his home for the playground, he’d walk through streets that smelled of spitting kebab and sweet Turkish pastries. 

Hany joined Hertha Berlin’s academy when he was six. His parents drove him an hour across Berlin to training, and when he was older, he caught U-Bahn trains himself. Abubakr, the immigrant, was the parent who pushed Hany to max out his potential. 

“Anything you do, do it right” he told his son, “whether it’s football or cleaning hotel rooms.”

Growing up in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, Abubakr wanted to play professional soccer. “There’s no money in Sudanese football,” his father advised him. “Get good grades.” Abubakr listened. He earned, in fact, the best grades and got a scholarship to a university in Berlin, where he completed a Ph.D. It was there  he met Ursula. 

As a child, Hany could grasp the contours of his father’s story, the work he’d put in to create opportunities for his family. He could sense his life was easier than his father’s. He didn’t want to waste the chance his parents offered him. “I didn’t do anything (special) to grow up in Germany,” he says. “I had the privilege.” The immigrant urge to scrap, that grindset, was something his father passed down. “It’s in my DNA,” Hany says. 

When he was eight, Hany worked as a ball boy for Hertha. At one point, when the ball went out of play, he tossed it to Marcelinho, the team’s star, a Brazilian with blonde hair. That’s when Hany knew he wanted to become a professional. When he was 14, the German national team called in a group of Under-15s. They named Hany the captain and handed him the number 10 shirt. I can actually do this, he realized.

Where Abubakr pushed and molded, Ursula soothed. In her gentle, lilting, Polish-accented German, Ursula would say her son’s name in singsong. Hallo Ha-ny! Their apartment was a space full of warmth, a place where the teakettle whizzed and a full breakfast — cooked by Ursula — sat on the table alongside fresh bread from local bakeries. Family mealtimes were non-negotiable. Occasionally, they’d all walk to the local Turkish spot for sucuk, a breakfast sausage. 

It was this care that Hany missed in Lisbon. When he landed at the airport, 10 journalists waited for interviews. He was the wonderkid, Germany’s match-winner against Portugal in the U-19 World Cup. 

As soon as training started, he was no longer special. He was one of 30. As he struggled for playing time, texts from friends started to dry up. People stopped telling him he was going places. He lived in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, but he couldn’t speak its language. He was still 19, lonely, on his own away from his parents for the first time. Near the end of the season, he’d built enough trust with manager Jorge Jesus to play in a league game. That summer, Jesus jumped ship to crosstown rivals Sporting Lisbon. The new manager, Rui Vitória, didn’t care for Hany and told him he needed to leave on loan. 

In June, Hany played for Germany in the 2015 U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. In the quarterfinals, Germany held a 1-0 lead against Mali. In the 56th minute, they earned a penalty, and the team chose Hany to take it. He was still the hero of Budapest, but the lost season in Lisbon weighed heavy on his slim frame. He missed. Two minutes later, Mali scored an equalizer and went on to win, eliminating Germany on penalties. By then, Hany had been subbed off. 

After he spent the following year on loan at Red Bull Salzburg, Hany returned to Lisbon in the summer. Benfica didn’t want him anymore. He called his agent to talk through options. 

“You can go to a secondary league,” he was told. For a 21-year-old kid — who one year earlier had dreamed of playing in the Champions League, at the highest levels of the sport, and two years earlier had scored the winning goal for his country in an international final — this was devastating. Hany hadn’t played regularly for 18 months. The lights flickered on his once-promising career, and something had to change. 

Alexander Zorniger, a coach Hany knew from Germany, called up his agent. He asked Hany to join him in the working-class suburbs of Copenhagen, where he coached Brøndby IF. Hany knew nothing about the club or the country. Before he committed to the team, he flew to Copenhagen to watch a game. 

“You will play,” Zorniger told him. “But you have to work. It’s not fancy here. We’re a hardworking team.”

“Hany, there is no breakfast here,” he continued. “If you want to eat breakfast, you have to make your toast.”

As Hany weighed whether to sign with Brøndby, he learned their next match was a Europa League qualifier against a familiar opponent: Hertha Berlin. 

This is a sign, Hany thought. I have to go

Hany started the home match against Hertha, and he provided an assist in a 3-1 Brøndby win. In training, the team ran and ran. One of the coaches rode alongside in a golf cart, barking directions at the team. This is exactly what I need right now, Hany realized. The mentality here wasn’t so different from Abubakr’s. He could easily deal with one-bedroom apartments and IKEA furniture as long as he got to play. Before derbies against FC Copenhagen, the club’s fans marched through the streets, orderly and disciplined. When Hany scored, he ran to those fans and saluted them. That salute has since become his signature. 

“That’s my job, to score goals,” he says. “And (when I salute), it’s job done.” 

Most importantly, he felt his buy-in reciprocated from the club and its fans. “I cannot tell you why,” he says.  “But me as a person, my type of player, how I am, it’s very important that the team and the coach and the whole organization trust you.” As a creative midfielder, he often made risky choices to generate opportunities. He could lose five, six, seven balls in a row before creating a goal with the eighth. He needed belief to thrive, and he found it with Zorniger in Copenhagen. In Hany’s second season with the club, he won the Danish Superliga Player of the Year award. Over time, as results worsened, fans began to question Zorniger for not selecting more Danish players. Zorniger was sacked in February 2019, and the club appointed a Dane, Niels Frederiksen, as his replacement. Under new management, Hany still played, but his centrality waned.

Courtesy Nashville SC

A few months later, a team in America called Hany’s agent. They technically didn’t exist yet as a pro club, but they would enter Major League Soccer the following season. They played in Nashville, Tenn., and they wanted to build their entire team around Hany. Would he be open to a new challenge?

Hany recognized the belief he craved. So he set out for another continent, an ocean away from all he’d known, once more looking for a home.

To watch Hany play during his first year with NSC was to read a great writer’s early novels — a clever sentence or metaphor here, a beautiful paragraph there, but all of it in fits and starts. He swung in the set piece that Walker Zimmerman bundled in for NSC’s first MLS goal. He scored a free kick, top bins, from 25 yards out against Houston Dynamo. But throughout the season, he struggled with injuries, and doubt began to creep in among supporters. 

He’s talented, people whispered, but inconsistent

Tactics didn’t always revolve around him. The team occasionally used Hany – five-foot-eight, 159 pounds – as a target and required him to try to win long balls himself. Behind the scenes, assistant coach Steve Guppy worked to transform Hany from an eight to a true ten, honing his now-signature stepover and gear shift. Hany had a lethal shot, but he needed more aggression in the final third to maximize it. For NSC to thrive, Hany needed to create for himself instead of others. 

One-v-one dribbling may seem fun. In reality, it’s all repetition, a process that some coaches describe as painful and humbling. As you improve, while your ambition exceeds your skill, you constantly lose the ball. To take defenders on requires craft, detail, and obsession. Kaoru Mitoma, one of the best one-v.-one wingers in the Premier League, wrote his college thesis on dribbling. Throughout Professor Guppy’s office hours, Hany completed his own dribbling degree, but the work took a while to show up on matchdays. 

During that first year, Hany repeatedly called his father. “You made this choice,” Abubakr reminded him. “Work hard. Stay focused. It’ll work out for you.”

As in Lisbon, Hany needed to adapt to a new city while he found his feet on the field. This time, he wasn’t alone. Throughout peak COVID, he formed two  relationships that bound him to his new city. 

Hany met Ashley Gowder through mutual friends. Like Hany, she was new to town, a transplant from Chicago during COVID. After they met for the first time, Hany sent her a message asking to meet up. Ashley showed the message to her sister, Sarah, her best friend and roommate. They lived together in a house in Donelson near the airport. 

“Should I go on a date with this guy?” Ashley asked.

“It won’t hurt,” Sarah told her. 

Hany picked Ashley up and they drove to Germantown for sushi at O-Ku. Neither of them drank — Hany by faith, Ashley by choice after a dry January — but they sat at the table talking for hours. They lived in seemingly opposite worlds, Hany in Berlin, in professional sports, Ashley homeschooled in suburban Atlanta, in the music business. In their own ways, they’d both grown up in bubbles. At O-Ku, they glimpsed something in each other, the spark of something that could come true. They recognized an appreciation for family, a love for food, a desire to make people happy. 

Ashley felt whiplashed when she got home. What just happened? Then, she surprised herself. If I have kids and they grow up just like this guy, I’d hit the jackpot, she thought.

An outing to Topgolf followed. Soon after, Ashley decided to repaint her room. She’d already picked up everything she needed from Home Depot, rollers and brushes and paints, when Hany called. 

“I’ll come help you,” he said.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Ashley said. “I got it.”

Hany insisted. “Let me help you!”

Ashley turned to her sister. “He keeps trying to help me paint my room,” she whispered. “Let him!” Sarah encouraged. 

This, Ashley learned, was an endearing aspect of Hany’s personality. He loves to drive friends to the airport. He loves to help people move. When Hany arrived, Ashley had laid all the gear out in her room.

“Which one do you want?” She asked. “The roller or the brush?” 

Hany reached for the brush. Ashley had taped the room’s ceiling and edges. Hany immediately attacked the wall, painting haphazardly in circles and crisscrosses. Ashley died laughing. Hany clearly did not know what he was doing. But he was so earnest, and he so intensely wanted to help. By the end of the day, they’d finished the job. 

During the pandemic, they walked around the Parthenon at Centennial Park. They played Mario Kart on Hany’s Switch. They preferred eating in to going out to restaurants anyway. Hany had learned to cook from Ursula, and throughout his trips around Europe, food and cooking provided a portal back to South Berlin. In his family, food had always served as a means to connect with the people he loved. In Nashville, it still was. 

The first time Hany cooked for Ashley, he tried to manage expectations. “I’m not the best cook,” he told her. Okay, she thought. Let’s see what he’s got. She watched as he chopped matchsticks and assembled multiple kinds of sprouts. He sliced chicken and rolled it all up in rice paper.

“Yeah, okay, sure,” Ashley rolled her eyes when she tasted the spring rolls, which were delicious. “You’re not a chef.” 

In October 2020, near the end of Hany’s first season with NSC, the club traded for Handwalla Bwana. Handwalla’s family was Somalian, but he was born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The following spring, Handwalla and Hany fasted together for Ramadan. As Ashley discovered, food is Hany’s love language, and he cooked soup, chicken, and pasta for Handwalla, whose favorite was Hany’s salad — lettuce, tomato, onion, green onion, cucumber, pickles, avocado, cheese, and chicken, tossed in peanut coconut dressing. After Ramadan, Handwalla and Hany would eat dinner together 2-3 times per week. They played FIFA together in Hany’s townhouse, and if Handwalla didn’t want to drive home, he’d crash in the spare bedroom. 

“I’m in his face all the time,” Handwalla says. “It’s like when you have a little brother, and he always comes in your room and bothers you.”

At training, you could always find Hany and Handwalla next to each other. The team called them “Hany and Handy.” Handwalla was a more natural dribbler, so he laughed as Hany labored under Guppy.  “Man,” Handwalla told him. “You have the ugliest stepover!” When Hany messed up in training, Handwalla pointed it out, as little brothers do. “Did you forget to eat breakfast today, Hany? C’mon man, that was shit.”

“You’re so handsome,” Hany replied. “But man, your teeth are ugly.”

At team weigh-ins, Handwalla loved to comment on Hany’s love for food. 

“You got a belly, Hany?”

Hany lifted up his shirt. “Nah,” he grinned. “Six pack.”

In the end, it was all love. Hany told Handwalla he was a younger version of himself, that he could be even better than he was. But if Handwalla was to be great, he needed to suffer, as Hany had in Lisbon and Copenhagen. 

“I cherish every single moment with him,” Handwalla says.

Abubakr told Hany he needed to have a clear and obvious skill to make it as a professional footballer. “Within five minutes of entering the stadium,” Hany explains. “You should be able to see a player’s specialty. Like (Jacob) Shaffelburg is fast. Me, I love shooting.”

“There’s no one deadlier than Hany inside the box,” Handwalla says. “Left foot, right foot, smashing it into the roof. Nobody’s better than him.”

Going into his second season in Nashville, finally healthy, supported by a best friend and a girlfriend, Hany knew he had the platform to show what he could do. 

“I think he had something to prove to himself,” Handwalla says. “Because he knew how good he was but never had the chance to (show) it.”

When the 2021 season kicked off, Hany began to author signature moments left and right. The coaching staff tweaked its tactics to better serve him. They brought in CJ Sapong, a target man who patrolled the skies, a number nine who won long balls from the back. Hany roamed the space just behind, where Sapong flicked headers into his path. In the 10th minute of a July home game against Chicago Fire, Sapong picked off a stray pass from a defender. He squared for Hany, who fired into the bottom left corner from the top of the box. One-nil. Hany and Sapong ran to the crowd and saluted.

Two minutes later, Daniel Lovitz dribbled down the left flank. He played a short ball to Hany, once more near the top of the box. Hany faced up to a Fire defender, stepped over the ball twice – the move he’d practiced over and over with Guppy, the one Handwalla lovingly mocked him for – and nestled a shot into the bottom right corner. Two-nil. Another salute. 

Another two minutes later, a Fire defender fouled Sapong just outside the box. Hany and Lovitz stood over the ensuing free kick. Hany smashed it over the wall and past the keeper, bar down, top bins. Fifteen minutes had passed since kickoff, the fastest hat trick in MLS history. Hany ran to the fans, arms spread wide, and saluted, the faintest hint of a smirk etched across his face. I do this, his expression said. I’m like that

Within five minutes of entering Nissan Stadium, you could tell Hany Mukhtar’s specialty was shooting. After the game, he could tell people around town saw him differently, that he’d earned their full belief. He hasn’t stopped scoring since.

People close to the team point to Hany’s thirst for growth, the laborer’s mindset he learned from Abubakr and Brøndby, as the reason he’s succeeded as a Designated Player. When they arrive, many DPs believe they’re made men, that they’ll tear up MLS without changing or breaking much of a sweat. Most DPs wouldn’t have spent hours on stepovers with Guppy. Hany agreed to evolve, and that has made all the difference. 

Hany is like many who have flocked to Nashville in the last decade. He came here in his mid-20s to make it. And now he has. Friends say he’s in the midst of his “second blooming” as an adult. He’ll be 28 in March. If he wants to make one last big move, the time is now, or at least soon. He can go chase what he thought he wanted when he was younger, prove he belongs among the stars he played with on Germany’s youth teams. Or he can stay and become an icon. 

In just a few years, he’s built an emotional connection with this city and grown deep roots here. To pull them up would be painful. 

“Hany always wants to be a good human being,” Handwalla says. “Like if Hany gets invited to dinner, he doesn’t know how to say no. So he used to tell me, ‘you need to (go with me).’ He always wants to make people happy.” 

One of Hany’s major anchors to Nashville is Ashley, who loves it here. Over time, the pair have broken each other out of their bubbles. Hany has introduced Ashley to all the world has to offer, taking her to the best sucuk spots in Tempelhof. In turn, Ashley has shown Hany around the States, taking him to many of her favorite places at home in Georgia. They’ve built a nest. They want many children. They eat probably 90 percent of their meals at home. They co-parent two dogs, Stacy and Maddy, and when Hany gets home, he chants for his Havapoo – Ma-ddy, Ma-ddy, Ma-ddy! – until she trots up and greets him. Ashley is the more extroverted of the two, and she draws out Hany’s personality. When they’re around strangers, Ashley talks more, but when they’re alone, Hany does. They’re both Type A, and when they’re together, Sarah says, they act like “competitive little rabbits.” 

“Eat my dust, Hany!” Ashley tells him as she zooms past in Mario Kart.

“We’ve done this before, Ashley,” Hany shoots back. “How many times did I win last time?”

“I can’t hear you over all the attitude,” Ashley replies, steering Yoshi to victory. 

One afternoon, Hany, Ashley, and Sarah drove to Chop’t in Green Hills. Hany asked Sarah to come in to help carry the food. She noticed he seemed a little frantic. Once they’d walked beyond Ashley’s earshot, he whispered, “Ashley and I are going to the Keys. I’m gonna propose. What do you think?”

He pulled out his phone and showed her pictures of a sailboat and a ring. 

“Is it good enough?” he asked, fidgety, suddenly a boy again. “Do you think she’ll like it?”

“Dude,” Sarah said. “I think she’s gonna like it.” The couple will marry in April.

Last fall, Hany opened his own soccer academy for Nashville’s youth. It wasn’t so long ago that he was one of them, attending camps and learning from members of Hertha’s first team. He often thinks back to the opportunities he had as a kid, the chances his parents gave him, and he wants Nashville’s kids to have them, too. He recruited a local coach, Pete Kipley, to help it grow. Ashley left her job in the music business in August to help build the academy. Ursula flew to Nashville for the Mukhtar Academy’s first camp, where she registered kids at the front table. Late this past Thanksgiving, at around 9 p.m.nine P.M., the academy received a shipment of 500 Puma balls for camps the next morning. When Pete showed up at the facility, he found Hany, Ashley, Ursula, and Sarah pumping them up. 

If you want to eat breakfast, Hany, you have to make your toast

“This is just the start,” Hany says.

Last October, Hany, Ashley, and Pete drove to Lipscomb’s soccer facility on Franklin Road to watch some academy players in a regional quarterfinal against Hutchison, a team from Memphis. Hany delivered the pregame speech to the Lipscomb Academy girls. He’s a reluctant public speaker, but he’ll do it when it feels important. 

“I know you worked hard to get here,” he said. “And this is an important game for you. Just go out there and lay it all out.” He pointed to his seat. “I’ll be cheering for you on the side.”

Lipscomb had earned the top seed, and they were favorites to advance. But the first half passed without a goal. Then the second. The longer Hutchison hung in the game, the more uneasy the crowd grew. The sun had set over Green Hills, and the field lights had switched on. The first half of extra time passed, still scoreless. Then the second. Penalties would decide the game. Hany and Ashley had spent all day with youth players, and Pete was sure they were going to leave. But there Hany sat, gripping the bottom of his seat. 

Hutchison shot first. The standard five rounds passed, and the teams remained deadlocked. The sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth rounds passed. At this point, kids who hadn’t volunteered were taking penalties. It was painful, the inevitability of being forced to witness the worst moment of a 16-year-old’s life. Relief flooded each girl’s face after she saw her shot find the net. In the tenth round, Hutchison scored their penalty. The Lipscomb player took the long walk from midfield to the spot. She needed to score to extend the match. She approached the ball. And sent it over the bar and into the night. 

The Lipscomb girls collapsed in on themselves. Hutchison screamed and ran around their field. The bus ride back to Memphis would be a movie. For the Lipscomb seniors, this was it, the end of their careers. Hany turned to Pete and Ashley, embers in his eyes. 

“I have to talk to them,” he said. 

Less than a minute had passed since the match ended. Hany walked purposefully across the field. As he approached Lipscomb’s bench, the girls lay on the grass, devastated, flooded in an ocean of their own tears. “I know what this feels like, personally,” he told them. “When it came down to me, I missed a penalty in the U-20 championships.”

“But in soccer, there is always another opportunity. There is still another day.”

In the moment, nothing could’ve made what happened okay. But months later, some of those girls still talk about that speech. 

About a week later, Hany won the 2022 MLS MVP award, for which he gave an acceptance speech. When he stepped down from the lectern, he looked for Ashley. “That was nothing compared to the Lipscomb Academy girls.”

The soccer world spins quickly. As Hany well knows, at some point, one of these summers will be a Rubicon, and he’ll be here forever. He isn’t afraid of risk, and he still hopes for a callup to the senior German national team. If this were a Hero’s Journey, he would still need to return home. But he’s pieced together a meaningful life here, across the world. Hany knows what he has in Nashville. He drives a Range Rover painted NSC gold – Ashley calls it “The Taxi” – with the license plate “NSC 10.” If he leaves, it will be because the fit is perfect. 

“When I was younger, all the decisions I made, I made emotionally,” he says. “Because I was young, I wanted to play Champions League. I wanted to make the next (step). I always wanted to go faster and higher, higher, higher.”

“Do I want to prove to everyone that I’m good enough to kill (the Bundesliga) or show that I’m a really, really good player? Yes. Do I need to go back? No. Like, I’m happy here. I know what I have here. And throughout my career, I’ve learned to appreciate these moments. It’s very rare that you find a place where, after three-and-a-half years, you say, ‘hey, I still love that place.'”

“And when you find that somewhere, you should be happy…Berlin will always be my home. But Nashville feels like my second home.” 

“If you go to a place where everything goes well for you, that place is a gift for you,” Handwalla says. “So Nashville is a gift for Hany, because everything he does is successful. But Nashville also received a beautiful gift. And that is Hany.”

Abubakr Mukhtar supporting his son in GEODIS Park. Courtesy Abubakr Mukhtar.

Several times in his adult life, most recently in 2018, Hany has traveled back to Khartoum with Abubakr. He describes the experience as “humbling.” Walking around Khartoum, Abubakr’s decisions felt more immediate, more tangible. Hany understood what it had taken to make it out, how Abubakr set aside his dreams so that one day, his children might realize their own. 

On May 1st, 2022, kickoff approached at GEODIS Park on a cloudless, windless afternoon in Nashville, the type of spring day that can make you forgive this city for its boiling summers. A sizzle reel flickered across the scoreboard, and Johnny Cash’s voice, like tires on gravel, rumbled from the speakers. 

You can run on for a long time

Run on for a long time

Sooner or later, God’ll cut you down

Sooner or later, God’ll cut you down

Fireworks shot from the pitch to the sky, fans screamed, and the referees, the away team, and the Boys in Gold walked out of the tunnel. More smoke, more screams. Hany walked out last. He hopped on the balls of his feet, he prayed. On most gamedays, he looks to his left and locates Ashley in the family section. If he doesn’t see her when the teams walk out, he’ll find her during the game. 

On this afternoon, the first home game in the new stadium, when Hany looked for Ashley, he saw Abubakr and Ursula, who’d flown in from Berlin. Abubakr wore a gold number 10 jersey, “Mukhtar” splashed across the back. When he caught Hany’s eye in warmups, he held out a fist and smiled. Growing up in Khartoum, dreaming of a career as a footballer, perhaps Abubakr could’ve pictured Hany’s life as his own — the number 10 shirt, the MVP award, a city that holds its breath every time you touch the ball. But he achieved something just as good. He gave his son the chance to live that life instead. 

The whistle blew. Hany was happy. He’d found his somewhere. And he had a city to take care of.

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