Iraqi football fans united by love of European teams

Baghdad (AFP) – Iraqi football supporters decked out in red cram into a cafe in Baghdad to cheer on their shared love — Manchester United.

Shouting, cursing and — eventually — celebrating, they watch as the team from the north of England notches up a win half way around the globe.

“United! United! United!”, they chant with joy in accents that are far from Mancunian.

While revered arenas such as Old Trafford or the Camp Nou may be thousands of kilometres (miles) away, supporting some of Europe’s best-loved teams offers a rare chance for Iraqi fans to come together and forget the troubles roiling their homeland.

Across the violence-wracked country, where some 400,000 people have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, there are 13 supporter groups officially recognised by clubs in Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany.

In a nation that has been torn apart by years of bloodshed and bitter division, a mutual passion for the beautiful game often helps to bridge differences.

“We all come together for Manchester United,” says Alaa Saadi, who heads Iraq’s largest fan group of some 450 members. “Young and old, Shiites and Sunnis, Arab and Kurds, Christians and Muslims.”

– Fans targeted –

Ali Anab, president of the Bayern Munich supporters club, says that watching the German champions offers “a respite, a chance to forget daily life”.

But even during those brief 90 minutes of distraction the violence in Iraq can still come bursting in brutally.

Last year, the Islamic State group claimed a gun, grenade and suicide attack that left 16 dead at a cafe popular with fans of Spanish giants Real Madrid in a provincial town.

For Anab that makes safety a priority, and his club regularly changes venues to avoid trouble and has stepped up security checks.

But this still does not dampen the enthusiasm of the supporters, Anab insists, as “students, graduates, the unemployed and workers tired from the traffic jams on their way home” flock to a cafe to watch the matches.

“The moment they kick off all other worries disappear,” he says.

Liverpool supporters’ chief Ali Kazem, 29, agrees, and says that members “come from far despite difficulties” to support the Reds.

The fan club for the five-time European champions was set up in 2011 and is the oldest in Iraq, Kazem points out proudly.

This season they received 50 official membership cards sent from the United Kingdom, each one costing some $40 (34 euros) per fan.

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