The Forgotten Fans: How Soccer Still Gives Hope in the Dark Corners of the Earth

Written By Salvatore Bono

Supporting a team, a player, or country is the definition of fandom.

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That fandom will make you clear your schedule to watch the games at home, travel to see the team play in your city or abroad, buy the merchandise and debate passionately with other fans why your support is the best.

That fandom is seen week in and week out in stadiums, bars, and homes around the world. In some instances, that fandom is displayed in places where citizens have no Western world luxuries or amenities.

These fans are found in the darkest places on the planet – in war torn countries or in nations where they have about as much of a say as the rats running in the street.

Yet, while they may not have the circumstances of the Western world, that hasn’t stopped them from loving The Beautiful Game.

Messi’s Biggest Fan

The world learned about Murtaza Ahmadi in January 2016 after he was photographed wearing a blue-and-white plastic bag which resembled the Argentine national team jersey with the name “Messi” scrawled across the back above a hand drawn “10.”

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The photo of the then-six-year-old boy from Afghanistan took off and it became a trending topic around the globe.

A month after Messi learned of the boy, thanks to the help of UNICEF, the Barcelona star was able to send Ahmadi a signed Argentina jersey, a real one this time, as well as a soccer ball.

 

When UNICEF presented the shirt to the boy, he said: “I love Messi and my shirt says Messi loves me.”

After his son became a global phenomenon thanks to the plastic shirt, the boy’s father, Arif, told CNN that the young child’s brother made him the plastic bag jersey when he wouldn’t stop crying.

“I told him that we were living in a poor village far from the city and it was impossible for me to get him the shirt,” Arif said. “He kept crying for days, asking for the shirt, until his brother Hamayon helped him make one the plastic bag to make him happy. He stopped crying after wearing that plastic bag shirt.”

As Ahmadi’s story grew in popularity and his family’s circumstance stayed the same, Messi, UNICEF and F.C. Barcelona opted to give the boy a day he would never forget in December.

Barca was in Doha, Qatar, for an exhibition match and the boy was invited to meet the team and hold hands with Messi as he walked out on the pitch. The child would not let his idol’s hands go and was eventually brought to the sidelines where he smiled the whole game.

 

‘Offside’

While it may be a fictional film, the 2006 Iranian flick, Offside, is based off real circumstances.

The film, directed by Jafar Panahi, tells the story of Iranian women who dress up as boys to try and enter a soccer stadium to watch their country play and qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. While the notion of this might sound crazy to someone reading this in the Western world, in Iran, females are forbidden to watch matches with men inside stadiums.

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The director’s daughter inspired the story, who once risked arrest so she could attend a game and support her country.

Offside was made during actual World Cup qualifying matches as the Iranian national team tried to get into the tournament.

When the film was released, it was banned from any screening in the country it came from.

 

When turning on a television during any weekend game broadcasted on the major networks or watching a Champions League match, could you imagine just seeing one gender?

In a world outside of our own heads and luxuries, it is hard to imagine the notion.

While this still goes on in Iran and doesn’t look to change anytime soon, next time you watch a game remember the women of the world who can’t wave a flag, cheer on the goals scored and those saved inside a stadium with their fellow citizens because they weren’t born male. They risk arrest and prison time for something we take for granted every week.

An Afternoon of Peace

Syria has been at war since 2011, as hundreds of thousands have left the country and others are displaced, some have remained in the capital of Aleppo.

In January, Aleppo saw something it has not witnessed since the conflicts – a professional soccer game.

Fans came out in droves to support the city derby between At-Ittihad and Al-Hurriya. In the stands flags were waved, scarves were flipped in the air, jerseys were worn and a packed stadium heard thousands of screaming fans for the first time in years.

Half the stadium was red and white, the other was green and white, representing the colors of both clubs but on the field, the ball boys kneeled and held a Syrian flag, which despite the conflicts, was introduced to thunderous applause.

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As national guardsmen patrolled the stadium for security, they didn’t need to be. The fans didn’t get out of hand – not this time. For them, it wasn’t just a regular derby; it was an escape from the reality outside the venue. It was an escape from six years of conflict; it was a release of positive emotions that has been seldom seen in Syria.

In the end, Ittihad beat Hurriya 2-1. It didn’t matter because soccer was slowly returning to the city.

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