Hassan ‘The Iraqi Lion’ – an Aston Villa love affair that has taken ahold of the Arab world

By Ryan Pitcher

Had the Saddam regime still been in power today then it’s likely that very little would have been known about a boy from Baghdad. A boy that found comfort in following the happenings of a football club situated some 2600 milles away from his home in the Iraqi capital, in the heart of a country where its military intervention is still under scrutiny to this very day.

Hassan Elkhafagi – now aged 25 – recently explained to me how it was his father and uncle who first elucidated him on the origins of Aston Villa Football Club. “Both my father and my uncle began to take note of the Villa in the early eighties when they won the first division title under Ron Saunders and then lifted the European Cup the following year – and so yeah I was born into a Villa supporting home.”

Many of our readers will already know of the ever-exuberant Hassan from his presence online. @HassanElkhafagi has almost 4,500 followers on Twitter with a large percentage of those being Villans from the UK, Hassan’s very own “Villa family” as he refers to them.

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Hassan Elkhafagi proudly holds his scarf aloft

Despite the war officially coming to an end around six-and-a-half years ago with the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Iraqi people are still feeling their way through some of the negatives in the aftermath, Hassad said, “Since the end of Western intervention there is now a power gap in Iraq and that fight for power is being fought among many factions – some of which are linked to terrorism.”

On the flip side, the fall of communism has enabled Iraqi’s to be more open and expressive than they’ve ever been before. A sentiment that is echoed by Hassan has he continued, “Back in Saddam’s time we only had access to two or three television channels, all of which were controlled by the regime and so we only got to see what they wanted us to see. And so if there had been no change at all then I’m in no doubt that social media would be either heavily controlled or maybe even banned. Iraq is now so much more open to the outside world with easier access to all sorts of things.”

This new-found sense of freedom has enabled people like Hassan to be creative about the things that they are passionate about, as demonstrated by his sharing of his Villa related comments, videos and photos on social media, as well as being the driving force behind the recent formation of the Iraq Lions Club.

Despite Villa not being overly popular in his homeland his enthusiasm for the club has never waned and speaking to him it’s very clear that it never will. Hassan said, “I began supporting the Villa as a child and would say I became a ‘true fan’ in around 2004 at the age of 11. Supporting a club like Aston Villa is not the norm over here, especially among the younger generation. The most popular clubs over here are the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool and then there are some that support Barcelona or Real Madrid in La Liga. For me personally, I like not being the same as everyone else.”

I suppose that going against the norm somewhat explains why Hassan lists Gabby Agbonlahor as his favourite Villa player during his lifetime. The rock at the back James Chester is his current hero in case you were wondering.

When quizzed about his standout Villa memories it can be of no surprise that the humbling of our near neighbours in blue gets a special mention as it would from any Villa fan from whichever part of the world. “There are just so many (memories)!” Hassan paused for reflection before revealing, “I suppose winning 3-2 against Manchester City with Andi Weimann scoring late on and famously celebrating in front of the fans is one that sticks to mind. That was a glorious moment for me. Another one that I cannot forget is beating Birmingham 5-1 when Gary Cahill scored his bicycle kick!”

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Andi Weimann celebrates his late winner against Man City

If ever you’re in need of a ‘pick me up’ then Hassan should be your go to man. Every word that leaves his tongue is one of pure love and adoration for the boys in claret in blue. “I love everything about Villa. The fans are just amazing, they are so welcoming and it’s just like one big family that we all belong to. When you love a football club like we do it’s such an integral part of your life, I’d even go as far to say that it defines who you are. Aston Villa means so much to me.”

It was at this point I made it clear to our Villa comrade that there’s so much love and respect for him here in the UK, as proven by one group of supporters who even went as far as creating a flag with Hassan’s face emblazoned on it along with the words ‘He’s One Of Our Own’ and proceeded to hang it up in The Holte. Hassan gave a such a heartfelt response when I asked him what this gesture meant to him, “Words cannot describe the feelings that I had. It was just an insane moment, one in which I was jumping up and down out of sheer happiness whilst tearing up at the exact same time because it was just such an overwhelming and emotional moment. My friends – most of which support other teams – were so very happy for me and some were actually quite jealous because of how amazing fellow Villa fans are with me.”

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Hassan: He’s One Of Our Own

All of this got me thinking about just how incredible it would be to have Hassan over in person to do something that he’s been longing to do ever since he was little and watch a Villa match from the terraces, on this subject he gleamed and said, “This has always been my dream. I don’t even know how I’d remain conscious throughout such a day! I’ve dreamt of the happiness on my face as I fly over to be where my favourite team is playing, to watch the team and to see Villa Park with my own eyes. All of that amazing history right in front of me… this would be the best day of my life!”

And the wait for such a day might well be nearing its climax with Hassan hopefully being able to gain a visa next term and he was in no doubt what his ideal match to come and spectate would be – “The Second City derby!” But failing that Hassan said, “Of course I’d love to watch us play Birmingham but in all honesty any match, any where, would be good enough for me. I wouldn’t really care where I would be sitting either but if I could choose then it would definitely be The Holte End.”

Meanwhile back home in Baghdad Hassan has been and will seemingly forever continue to try and get some more Iraqi’s and Arabs backing the Villa cause. Earlier this year, with the help of fans that are close to the club, Hassan officially launched the Iraq Lions Club and although it has been slow progress he’s confident of getting many more on board, he explained “It was an idea that I’d had for a long time having been in contact with Aston Villa fans all over the Arab world and I just really wanted to see a gathering of some sorts, something that shows our togetherness and to support the club as one. But getting supporters from all Arabic countries is very difficult and so, for now at least, I ended up doing what I could do within my local community and launched the Iraq Lions Club and although as of now we only have 11 committed members hopefully we will gain more in the future.”

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As part of Heart of the Holte’s want to help Hassan we will be dedicating a match day in which we want ALL OF YOU to get involved. Details are yet to be confirmed, and we haven’t at this moment in time spoken to the club itself, but at some point in September/October we aim to set up a drop-off point outside Villa Park so that you can give up any of your old football shirts. I, for one, have so many that I will be relinquishing to this fabulous cause.

Some of these shirts will be donated to Hassan and the Iraq Lions Club to help them grow, but most will be given to KitAid, a charity that recycles your once loved football kit and distributes it to underprivileged children and adults in some of the world’s poorest countries. To find out more about KitAid please click here.

Stay tuned for further details on this event.

Thank you for reading and UP THE VILLA!

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