Iraqi fans enjoy first winter World Cup in outdoor cafes and terraces

The tournament in Qatar is the first to be held in the region and the second held entirely in Asia

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As the Fifa World Cup kicks off in Qatar, diehard football fans in Iraq are gathering at cafes and open spaces to watch the games, enjoying free access to live streams and nice weather.

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

At the courtyard of the city's Town Centre Mall in the upscale commercial hub of Mansour, Iraqis are enjoying the games in temperatures around the 20ºC mark – down from the blistering summer heat usually associated with a summer World Cup.

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

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

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

Construction worker Abbas Salam, 16, said he cannot afford paying the encrypted channels to watch the matches so he enjoys the games at the fan zone. Sinan Mahmoud / The National

Nearby, a man distributed tickets to a sweepstake for the winning team in the tournament, offering tablets and computers for the winners. The tickets offered for free as a promotion for an app for online learning.

Young people and families sat on fluffy bean bag chairs littered around the screen, with some huddled over wooden and metal tables from nearby cafes and restaurants.

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

“I feel very proud to see an Arab country hosting the World Cup. It’s a success for all Arab countries and hopes one day Iraq will be able to host the tournament.”

The atmosphere among the fans was quiet during the subdued first half of the Senegal-Netherlands match.

But it changed in the second half, as Mr Al Qaisi and other fans held their breath when the teams started 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 construction worker Abbas Salam from Baghdad's Jihad area a chance to enjoy the games. He arrived with his two friends.

“We can’t afford to pay the [private] encrypted channels to watch the matches,” said Mr Salam, 16, as he was putting a tick mark under the Brazil flag in the raffle.

Football is Iraq's most popular sport, followed by basketball and swimming, a poll for the Independent Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies research group in Iraq found.

Around 77 per cent of Iraqis say they are following the World Cup tournament matches, with Argentina topping the list of teams supported by Iraqis, followed by Brazil and Qatar.

Iraq did not qualify for the 2022 Fifa World Cup after losing to Iran 1-0 in June.

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

The 25th Gulf Cup will be held in the southern city of Basra from January 6 to 19, when Iraq will be joined by Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen.

Many Iraqis see it as a sign of their country's recovery after years of conflict, political and economic crises and uneasy relations with Gulf neighbours.

Updated: November 24, 2022, 8:24 AM
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