Barca or Real? Iraqi Kurdistan's big football faultline

Barca and Real Madrid banners on Kurdish street Barca and Real Madrid banners on a Kurdish street

Noisy celebrations in the middle of the night, fights, even stabbings - this is the scene in one northern Iraqi city, after a match between Spanish football giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. Spain is thousands of miles away, but when the teams play - as they will on Saturday - passions in Erbil run very high.

Every time Real Madrid and Barcelona play, the streets empty, coffee houses fill with fans, and TV channels drop their usual programming to start the build-up for the match.

Afterwards, the streets fill again for the victory celebrations. Fans of the winning team tour the city in convoys of cars, horns blaring, young men hanging out of the windows.

But this is not Madrid or Barcelona - it's Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraq is a country with more than its fair share of political and religious fault lines, and Kurdistan - which became semi-autonomous in 2005 - also has fierce political and clan rivalries.

But when it comes to football, there are only two camps - Real Madrid and Barcelona. This is apparent even on days the teams aren't playing.

Street vendor in Erbil in Barca shirt

Posters of the teams adorn the streets, shops are named after them, and people wear their jerseys. Kurdish people don't seem to be very interested in local or Arab football teams, but they are fanatical about the Spanish giants.

El Clasico - more than a game

Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
  • El Clasico originally referred to Copa del Rey ties; now means any match between Real Madrid and Barcelona
  • Rivalry intensified by Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) - Barca (and Catalonia) associated with opposition to General Franco, Real perceived as establishment side
  • Taking five competitions into account since 1902 (La Liga, Copa del Rey, League Cup, Super Cup, Champions League) Real have won 89 times, Barca 86, with 48 draws

In a coffee house in Ankawa, Erbil's Christian quarter, Barcelona fan Mustapha Ergushi puffs on a hubble-bubble as he muses on the explanation for this strange infatuation.

"Kurdish people were oppressed for years. They were not able to express their feelings, their passions," he says.

"Now they are free to let this energy out, that they kept inside themselves all those years."

Barca is part of his life, Ergushi says.

"When our team plays, we come together to watch the match in coffee shops or in houses. When we win we go out in our cars. Even if it finishes at one o'clock in the morning we celebrate in the streets."

There are regular clashes between Real Madrid and Barcelona supporters, even occasional stabbings, so police are out in force on El Clasico days, especially in Iskan, a vibrant area famous for its coffee houses.

"This place is for Real fans. Barcelona supporters are barred," says one group of young men in the smoke-filled Naight Cafe in Iskan.

Goban Askeri, who works in another coffee house in Iskan, proudly shows me his Barcelona jersey. "I can't get along with Real Madrid fans," he says. "I have fought so many times for Barcelona. Whenever Real Madrid are playing, I wear this Barcelona jersey on purpose."

Kurdish fans of Barcelona and Real Madrid

Silvan Kerim Abdullah, director of the college of sport education at Salahaddin University, says the reason Kurds prefer teams from the far end of the Mediterranean to their own local clubs is because of the flair of the stars who play for them.

Iraqi Kurdistan

  • Population 5.3 million, area 15,692 sq m (40,643 sq km)
  • Recognised as semi-autonomous federal entity by 2005 constitution which followed 2003 Iraq war
  • Governed as parliamentary democracy - president is Massoud Barzani

Whether a Kurd supports Barcelona or Real Madrid is likely to be determined by whether they prefer Barca's Lionel Messi or Real's Ronaldo, he argues.

But Kurdish journalist and blogger Abdulla Hawez says that - as in Spain, where some on the left still think of Real Madrid as Franco's team - politics and class come into it.

"Those who support Real are usually richer people, while the poorer people are more likely to support Barca."

Barcelona fans appear to be more numerous, probably because Kurdistan and Catalonia are both regions pressing for greater autonomy.

Erbil roadsign advertising Barcelona

The President of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, well known as a supporter of Barcelona, was sent a team jersey by the club's president Sandro Rossell.

Last August, a banner was unfurled in the stands during an El Clasico in Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium bearing the words: "Kurdistan is not Iraq / Catalonia is not Spain".

Meanwhile, Real Madrid are taking steps to attract more support among the Kurds.

The Madrid team and the Erbil government signed an agreement last year on setting up football academies across the region.

One has already opened and three more are on the way.

The rivalry seems set to continue into the next generation.

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