Raad Abdulhussein sits glued to a television in a Baghdad cafe, anxious over the dual concerns of his team trailing in a World Cup match, and the danger of bombings.
He puffs continually on a waterpipe as he sits quietly with three friends in the “Facebook” cafe, the silence only broken by shouts or clapping when the Netherlands advance toward Mexico’s goal.
“Football brings us together,” says Raad, a 30-year-old taxi driver, who visits the cafe every day with his friends to watch the matches, which due to the time difference are broadcast in the evening in Iraq.
“It is our only way to leave the atmosphere of worry and tension and fear of the unknown,” he says.
“A car may explode at any moment, or a bomb, or a person enters the cafe and blows himself up,” Raad says.
This year’s World Cup comes during an unprecedented decline in security within Iraq, with Sunni militants led by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group overrunning parts of five provinces in a lightning offensive that Iraqi soldiers and police are struggling to contain.
While the militant drive has yet to truly threaten Baghdad, the group’s spokesman has vowed its forces will push on to the Iraqi capital and Shiite shrine cities farther south.
But the offensive is by no means the first time Baghdad residents have faced threats while going out to watch matches — the capital has lived under constant threat of bombings and violence for years.
Cafes are especially dangerous places, as militants often target them and other places where crowds of people gather, including markets and mosques.
Late last year, Baghdad security officials even held a seminar for cafe owners on how to deter and stop suicide bombers, after nearly 50 cafes were bombed nationwide in barely six months.
Danger worsened in Ramadan
That danger is compounded during the current holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when militants sometimes carry out attacks following the meal known as iftar that breaks the daily fast.
But with the World Cup only held every four years, football-crazed Iraqis still take to cafes to watch matches, especially as many suffer lengthy power cuts that prevent them from tuning in at home.
“The atmosphere of the (World Cup) outside the home is better,” says Osama Salem, a 31-year-old salesman.
But he adds with disappointment that “we have supported the Netherlands team for years, and the Netherlands are now down a goal.”
“The World Cup is organised once every four years — do we sit in our homes and give in to fear?” he continues, while trying to focus on the match, which the Netherlands ultimately won.
“We sit and we are afraid, but what can we do?”
“God willing, this ordeal will end,” he says, fatalistically adding that if it is one’s time to die, you will die wherever you are.
In sharply-divided Iraq, football is one of the few unifiers. This was especially the case in 2007, when the country cheered on the national side as it won the Asia Cup at the height of a brutal sectarian war in which tens of thousands were killed.
The World Cup “is the most beautiful thing. The whole world is watching it, and the people here are overjoyed by it and come to watch” until late at night, says Ali Hussein, a 21-year-old who works at the Facebook cafe, where patrons must go through strict security measures before they enter.
“Football is life for Iraqis, and we all remember the year 2007, when all the people went out in the street, no Sunni and no Shiite and no Kurds — everyone behind the team.”
“If Iraq qualified for the World Cup, maybe it would unite us again.”