Their team may have been defeated 3-1 by Bahrain in their opening match of the Gulf Cup on Sunday night but the enthusiasm of Iraqi football fans in the UAE is undiminished as they look forward to tonight's game in Muscat against Oman, the tournament's hosts. For these supporters, above all others, each test of their team is not just another chance at scoring goals. Instead, it is a shot at peace, love and community-building. "What ties us here is football," said Zain al Hasani, a 27-year-old engineer who gathered with his countrymen in a cafe in Abu Dhabi to watch Sunday's game. "It represents what truly unites us, because everything else divides us." For years, Iraqis, divided by ethnicity or religious beliefs, have endured violence, death and destruction, but when it comes to football all politics and other differences are set aside. The unifying power of the sport was demonstrated spectacularly two years ago, when a national team comprised of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, went into the Asian Cup as underdogs, hampered by inadequate training, playing fields, equipment, kit and even boots. Against all the odds, they fought through to the final, beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 to capture the title of Asian champions. Iraqis all over the world set aside religious and political differences to celebrate a victory that seemed to offer hope for rebuilding a war-torn country. In July 2007, the BBC reported that the victory had "temporarily united the divided country" and quoted Mouwaffaq al Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, as saying: "It's a huge success for Iraq and it's... very, very good news for Iraq". And if the Asian Cup was inspirational, the Gulf Cup has come to symbolise the national struggle. Three-time champions of the tournament, which began in 1970, Iraq last lifted the trophy in 1988. The team withdrew from the next competition, in 1990, and after the first Gulf War was banned between 1992 and 2003. Iraq rejoined the tournament in 2004 and the country has now submitted a bid to host the 2013 competition in the southern city of Basra. After round-one disappointments in the Gulf Cup in 2004 and 2007, Iraqis are now hopeful of a repeat of the Asian Cup triumph. In Abu Dhabi, young Iraqis gathered at the Chillax Restaurant on the Corniche to cheer on their team against Bahrain. Many were born in Abu Dhabi and what they know of their own country they have learnt from parents who moved to the capital decades ago. But while they may sometimes struggle with their sense of belonging, dressed in the national colours of red, white, black and green, they shared a common national cause as they sat tightly packed, cheering and chanting as the game began. "The pride they show is quite impressive considering many of them have never lived in Iraq," said Ahmad Shubbar, 23, watching his cheering compatriots. Early hopes faded as Bahrain put away the first of its three goals and, although Iraq managed to claw one back, they were extinguished altogether as two players were sent off - including, 25 minutes from full-time, the Iraqi keeper, Noor Sabri. "Come on boys," screamed Omar Ibrahim, 24, in the last few minutes of the game, but this time there was to be no fairy-tale ending. "Congratulations to Bahrain," he said. "You win some, you lose some." Tonight at 6pm, Iraq gets a second chance to shine in the cup when they take on Oman. "Oman is the host," Mr Ibrahim said, "but we can do it." Enthusiasm for the tournament has been less evident among other countries' fans in the capital. Some of the other competing countries do not have large communities in Abu Dhabi and many choose to watch the games at home in the company of friends or family. "If I were in Saudi, I would go to a coffee shop because it's an exciting atmosphere with Saudis around you," said Seif al Mutairi, 25, a national of the Kingdom. "It's like going to watch a UAE match here." Instead, he watches his country's games at home with a few friends. Emiratis, the cup holders and 2007 hosts, have high hopes for their team, which beat Yemen 3-1 in its opening game on Monday. But while fans have been gathering at coffee shops across the capital, turnouts have not been as high as expected. Wissam al Halah, manager of the Hard Walls Restaurant and Cafe at Marina Mall, said it had been prepared to seat about 250 fans but had had many empty seats. In the final match of the Gulf Cup two years ago, "There were no more chairs to sit on, people were sitting on the floor", he said. It is, of course, still early in the tournament. Ahmad al Kaabi, 38, a UAE national who celebrated his team's victory over Yemen at the cafe, said he preferred watching games in coffee shops. It was, he said, "the atmosphere of the people" that made it so exciting. But nothing, of course, beats the atmosphere of watching a big game in the stadium. If their team wins today's match, the Iraqi fans from Abu Dhabi plan to travel to Muscat for the third game of the group stage against Kuwait on Saturday. "If it all goes well against Oman, we will definitely be going," said Mr Ibrahim. "It will be beautiful." * The National
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