Bleak and frightening times in Iraq but World Cup provides some relief

On Tuesday, it was the insurgency. On Wednesday, the bombs fell. And on Thursday the city electrical grid was cut. Most Iraqis will never take up arms against Islamic extremists. They have grown used, long ago, to the sounds of missiles and jet fighters and the possibility of not being able to drive to work due to militias fighting on the streets of their hometowns. Almost every Iraqi who makes a living wage spends a portion of their income on a privately supplied back up generator, to account for, at the very least the one hour in a day when the city grid cannot cope, or for these periods in time when the electricity is just cut with no forewarning. These are strange, bleak and even frightening times, but they are not unusual times. To compound the weirdness, Thursday night saw a spectacular electrical storm across the skies of Northern Iraq, hitting right in time for kick off.

It may, perhaps, appear somewhat crass to begin an article with a description of the insurgency which this week has begun to rip Iraq asunder, with Baghdad sitting on the brink of Nihilistic oblivion, and then to talk about the World Cup. But that’s what people here do. It’s a survival mechanism, some kind of psychological defence against the hellish reality of politics in the country. As a result, the streets were already bustling with young men and women in flags and football shirts when, an hour before kick off, I walked down through the rain to the centre of town to the local sports bar.

It feels like a remnant from the US occupation. The multiple HD screens resemble one of those gastronomic ESPN villages you find in the more salubrious areas of Washington or Baltimore. On the walls are signed Michael Vick jerseys, photographs of ice hockey players I don’t recognise, and even a banner signed by Vince Lombardi. I’m not sure how many of the locals would recognise Vince Lombardi if he sat down next to them and started regaling them, in fluent Arabic, with anecdotes of being a Superbowl winning coach, but clearly it appeals to foreign workers here - chiefly oil workers, but with a slightly venal sprinkling of security contractors; guys who have stayed in Iraq too long and become addicted to money.

Tonight though it’s a cosmopolitan crowd. Kurds, Christians, and Arab males make up the local fan base. From what I could tell, they were largely rooting for Brazil. The appeal of players like Neymar is hard to reject when you are accustomed to live coverage of the rather horrendous Qatari Stars League, which apparently, officially, does not need an apostrophe. These guys will also be supporting Spain, Argentina and Portugal, for the same reasons. They understand football, follow it passionately, and have a predilection for the superstars. Some of them, the students and the academics and, dare I say it, the Iraqi hipsters, will come to watch Honduras versus Switzerland, but for the most part it’s the elite games they want to see. The ex-pat community is a little different, though.

Fans in Iraqi bars tend to congregate in groups according to nationality. One of the televisions (of the ten or twelve) is showing a re-run of last night’s Baltimore Oriels baseball game. In front of it sit – or stand – four or five men in backwards baseball caps, all of whom are built like defensive linebackers and drinking bottles of Bud light. It’s a grotesque scene in many ways, but once the sound is turned out, Graeme Souness and the gang on BeIn sports quickly drown out their frat boy yelling. I don’t know what they do in these parts of the woods. Security most likely. And that explains a lot.

In the far corner, in the sealed off “VIP” sections are wealthy locals and Turks, who have come mainly for the upstairs casino and to smoke shisha; the sweet smell of molasses is one of the endearing differences between watching football here and in the UK. And, crowded around the bar, a mix of Nigerians, Brazilians, Germans, and Brits. It’s a slightly frightening combination, to be frank, and the conversations wouldn’t make any sense to anyone who is there.

At various points I hear, “Come on, Jellyfish” (A Welsh woman), “There needs to be more yellow cards from the referee.” (An old German)

“We have nothing on the right side.” (A Brazilian who would later grasp me around the shoulders, demonstrating to one and all how it was – definitely was – a penalty).

The Brazilians sat passively. They seemed to be confident. Everyone else seemed to get caught up with the Croatian style, a hundred miles per hour stuff with little by way of control, but much to be praised in terms of endeavour. The biggest cheer of the night undoubtedly came with the opener; the own goal stemming from an enormous gap, as identified before the game by my Brazilian friend, in the Brazilian right back area. Some of the locals seemed to be identifying with the Croats; perhaps they were becoming bored with Neymar’s role on the periphery, but the goal seemed to be welcomed. When Neymar decided to step up his game, so to do the Iraqi fans. Not, of course, to the extent that they would admit it was a penalty, though. When that call was made, the barroom erupted in a cry of “la la la la Allah, la la la!” (No, no, no… oh god no. Never!) and grumbling from all and sundry. Other than my Brazilian friend, who persisted, theatrically that it wasn’t a blatant dive

Things quietened down after that; as Brazil enforced their dominance, the Croatian attacks became fewer and the locals returned to their celebratory mood. Five minutes after the final whistle, the bar started to empty. The car horns blared, as is the local custom. For 90 minutes there was no ISIS, there was no Al Qaeda. Baghdad was of no concern to anyone in the bar that night. Brazil had beaten Croatia, with a little help from a Japanese referee. People had legitimate reasons to complain and to celebrate. Politics be damned; for a month or so, at least.

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