Iraqi fans proudly watch as cafes screen the Arab world’s first World Cup

As the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar, die-hard football fans in Iraq gather in cafes and open spaces to watch the games, enjoying free access to live streams and beautiful weather.

A private internet provider has football in Baghdad covered after setting up a giant screen in an open space to show all the matches. Cafes across the country are also packed with fans.

In the courtyard of the Town Center Mall in the upmarket commercial hub of Mansour, Iraqis are enjoying the Games in temperatures hovering around 20C – less than the sweltering summer heat typically associated with a Summer World Cup.

It is the first World Cup to be held in the Arab world and the second to be held entirely in Asia, following the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan.

The championship, which started on Sunday, ends on December 18th.

Uniformed waiters swiftly navigated the packed fan zone set up by Earthlink, serving food, drinks and shisha to fans.

Construction worker Abbas Salam, 16, said he couldn't afford to pay for the encrypted channels to watch the games so he enjoys the games in the fan zone.  Sinan Mahmoud / The National

Nearby, a man was handing out tickets to a raffle for the tournament’s winning team and offering the winners tablets and computers. The tickets are offered free of charge as a promotion for an online learning app.

Young people and families sat on fluffy bean bags scattered around the screen, some huddled over wooden and metal tables from nearby cafes and restaurants.

“The atmosphere is fantastic and the weather is fabulous,” said Abdullah Al Qaisi, a 25-year-old contractor The National.

“I am very proud to see an Arab country host the World Cup. It is a success for all Arab countries and we hope that one day Iraq can host the tournament.”

The atmosphere among the fans was calm during the subdued first half of the Senegal-Netherlands game.

But things changed in the second half, with Mr Al Qaisi and other fans holding their breath as teams began to push deeper.

Cody Gakpo opened the scoring for the Netherlands in the 84th minute with a header at the end of a brilliantly timed run. Substitute Davy Klaassen scored in the 99th minute.

The fan zone offers Abbas Salam, a construction worker from Baghdad’s jihad-held territory, the opportunity to enjoy the games. He arrived with his two friends.

“We can’t afford to pay them [private] encrypted channels to watch the games,” said Mr Salam, 16, as he ticked the Brazilian flag in the draw.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Iraq, followed by basketball and swimming, according to a survey for the research group of the Independent Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies in Iraq.

Around 77 percent of Iraqis say they follow World Cup matches, with Argentina topping the list of teams supported by Iraqis, followed by Brazil and Qatar.

Iraq failed to qualify for the 2022 Fifa World Cup after losing 1-0 to Iran in June.

However, in January, Iraq will host the eight-team Arabian Gulf soccer tournament for the first time since 1979.

The 25th Gulf Cup will be held in the southern city of Basra from January 6-19 when Iraq joins Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Many Iraqis see it as a sign of their country’s recovery after years of conflict, political and economic crises and strained relations with its Gulf neighbors.

Updated November 22, 2022 at 11:30 p.m



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