Football in the Times of Isis

Words By: Cristoforo Spinella

In the summer of 2014, Adnan Kadhim Ali Nassir Al Tameemi was already a star in Iraqi football. A protagonist at the Under-20 World Cup a year before, where he even scored a “FIFA-esque” goal in the semi-final game against Uruguay consolidating his nicknames of “Bale of the Middle East” and “Roberto Carlos of Baghdad”. The left winger had fantasies of playing in Rome as he earned his stripes in Turkey, at Rizespor. Suddenly, in the transfer market in June, he stopped speaking of his performance on the pitch, to tell more appetising stories to the newspapers and TV: Ali Adnan – now playing for Udinese with the number 53 on his jersey – had enlisted in the Iraqi army to fight against Isis.

Soon, photos emerged of him in camouflage alongside senior officers and alleged fellow soldiers. This was an evocative but decidedly misleading story, he explained to Italian, as he became the first Iraqi to play (and score) in Serie A: “It was only a commercial. I was simply trying to gain support for my country and nothing more. I am a player and I do not like mixing with politics” explained the player on his arrival in Italy.  In short, it was a commercial stunt meant to raise the morale of the troops and give credibility to the fragile government in Baghdad, still embroiled in a war with the Jihadists. In his case, seeking livelihood as a footballer put him on the fringes. Nothing highlights this more than his becoming a piece of propaganda in support of the army, without ever even firing a bullet. In a time and place controlled by Isis, the game itself has become a battle.

Slides from Sinjar after a Kurdish aerial attack to liberate the city from Daesh (John Moore / Getty Images)

Who Attacks the Ball…

The bottom line is simple, the answers however, as often happens, are not. With Isis’ ambitions to become a recognised state and manage all aspects of public life, is football really banned? And to what extent? What awaits those who get caught chasing a ball, or maybe watching those that do? Will it be the infamous punishments, whippings or even beheadings that are so useful to the propaganda of terror?

“When it comes to football in the militant Islamist community, jihadists but also groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, are divided in two groups: there are the “moderates “, amongst whom, if he were alive, Osama bin Laden would be part. Then there are others, Isis, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram, who see football as deviation from the duties of the faith “. Wrote James M. Dorsey, the co-director of the Institute for Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg, Germany, in is his blog “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer “.

In recent years, Dorsey has monitored how incidents of terrorism have been related to football: “Isis has had a long history of attacks on stadiums, especially in Iraq. In the summer of 2014, there were shocking images of dead Iraqi soldiers wearing football shirts, probably trying to avoid recognition by wearing uniforms”. In mid-May, an attack attributed to the terrorist group left at least 16 dead and 20 wounded in the “Iraq Blancos” club, Real Madrid fan club in Balad, a town 80 km north of Baghdad. Men armed with kalashnikovs entered the room by opening fire on guests indiscriminately, simply because they were there in a place dedicated to “celebration” of football. The tragedy was recognised by the Spanish club, who in the aftermath of the massacre, decided to take the field with black armbands in the last match of the La Liga season.

What remains of the Real Madrid Fan Club After the Attack (Ahmad al-Rubaye/Afp/Getty Images)

Many attacks are also carried out during amateur football matches. “Unfortunately, often we have no direct evidence, we know only what is reported through the videos circulated on the net. But it is certain that regardless of relationship with football, the stadium remains an important target because it allows you to hit a large number of people, and for the great media impact that follows. The attack at the Stade de France in November is another one on this list”. But there isn’t just Isis. All extremist groups tend to make football out to be a symbol of Western corruption that they try to fight. “In 2010 in Somalia, when al Shabaab controlled several areas in Mogadishu, they threatened to execute the civilians if they watched matches in secret. The same happened with sports journalists. ”

It is not a given, however, that an outright ban of football is the objective of groups such as Isis. It’s certainly not easy to implement. As demonstrated by some “exceptions”, which in some cases involve the militant groups themselves. “Outwardly, the Islamic state has a very strong control, especially over the internet; inside it has eliminated the professional game. But this does not always apply to foreign fighters, who are accustomed to another way of life.” In the group connected the British executioner “Jihadi John” – aka Mohammed Emwazi – it seems there were many fans, who were allowed to watch the games in their luxury villas, abandoned by the fleeing population and hidden away from the eyes of local militants. Emwazi himself revealed to the British tabloids that as a child he dreamed of being a football player. For Dorsey, “to put it simply, football is too popular to be completely banned.”

An Iraqi man, wearing a jersey of Paris Saint Germain, walking near a poster depicting the Real Madrid fans killed in the attack a few days ago (Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty Images)

Propaganda Land…

Around the territories controlled by ISIS, conflicts have also hampered – if not completely blocked – professional football. Like Ali Adnan, many of his less gifted connationals have gone to play abroad, in search of better conditions and salaries. In Iraq, the championship is played regularly, except for within areas controlled by the Islamic state, which are still a minority in the country. But the security concerns are not limited to these areas. In one of the most recent attacks, a few tens of kilometers from Baghdad, 29 people were killed by a suicide bomber during a game. Football has not stopped in Syria either, even if games are only played in Damascus and Latakia. “They still have a League, though obviously only in areas controlled by Bashar al Assad, and the national team has qualified for the next Asian Cup”.

“All in all it is a success for a country at war. But the divisions are very strong, and inevitably have repercussions in football” explains Dorsey. The team of Latakia, for instance, is controlled by one of Assad’s cousins and considered the favorite of Shabhia, the armed militias of the Baathist regime. “For the regime it is very important to give a positive image of Syria through football; different from that of war that you see every day” suggests Dorsey. A few days ago, the Syrian Federation even circulated an improbable letter (in Spanish) to José Mourinho, formally offering him the manager role of the National side “to qualify, for the first time in the country’s history, to the World Cup” in Russia. An appeal for propaganda purposes, but further proof of the importance of football for the regime.

A match between the Iraqi national team and the clubs Karbala, Karbala to the new International Stadium (Mohammed Sawaf / AFP / Getty Images)

The Best…

“The national team is all pro-Assad: the coach, the captain and some players express direct support, others feel they have no choice, many play abroad and do not want to be compromised by politics” says Dorsey. “But others have made different choices, becoming refugees rather than staying in Syria, or joining the armed members of the opposition.”

The most emblematic story is probably that of Abdul Baset al Sarout, very promising goalkeeper of the Under 17 and Under 20 Syria. After putting aside the gloves, he become a hero of the resistance against the Assad regime in Homs. He is considered by Al Jazeera to be “an icon of the Syrian revolt”. His four brothers have been killed in the war. Baset, now 24, is still alive and commands a brigade that fights alongside the Jabhat Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, which is opposed to Assad. Until five years ago, when the war started, he defended the goal at Al Karamah, his local team. It is said that in Syria he was the best of his generation.