Meet Iraq's iconic cheerleader who marches to the beat of his own drum

Meet Iraq's iconic cheerleader who marches to the beat of his own drum

When Mahdi Al Kalkhi enters the stadium, it is as if the president has just walked in. Crowds erupt in cheers as he tilts his head in acknowledgement and gives them a regal wave.

But it is not long until he breaks character, drumming on his tablah and shouting orders to compliant fans who sway from side to side in tandem with the Iraqi football team’s unofficial mascot.

Mr Al Kalkhi, 64, has been a fixture at Iraqi matches for more than 30 years and his reputation certainly precedes him.

A selfie opportunity with him is as sought after as a picture with a star player.

Once spotted – and dressed in a home-made thobe made from Iraqi flags, he is not difficult to pick out of a crowd – fans of all ages clamber over themselves to snap a photo with him.

“I am the number one cheerleader in the world and in Iraq,” Mr Al Kalkhi says as he prepares to warm up the Iraqi crowd before their team faces off against Iran in the Asian Cup on Wednesday.

“I don’t have a job. This is my life – every time Iraq plays I am there with them.”

He does have a family – a wife, children and “many grandchildren” – but that has never stopped him from following his team wherever they go.

“I went with the team to the World Cup and this is the 10th Asian Cup I have attended with them,” Mr Al Kalkhi says proudly.

He began cheerleading for his team in 1976 during the Asian Cup, where Iraq finished in fourth place.

“I stitched this thobe and went there with a drum and did my thing,” says Mr Al Kalkhi. “The people liked me and ­started to recognise me ­everywhere I go.”

He has since become an online sensation and found ­himself in the company of presidents and famous footballers such as Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.

“I was also honoured by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces] for a video I posted on YouTube paying tribute to Sheikh Zayed [the Founding Father],” says Mr Al Kalkhi.

He is interrupted by organisers who usher him into the stadium to get the crowd ­excited before the match gets under way.

He hurries inside with his drum tucked under his arm and begins signalling to the crowd like a maestro distributing roles to a rowdy orchestra.

He runs from left to right shouting orders at one group of fans to chant and the other to stand up and clap.

When Iranian fans begin to drown them out with a synchronised cheer, he turns serious and pushes his way up the stairs and through the crowds – where he is not supposed to be – to find a better vantage point.

He grabs a larger drum from his assistant and leads an even louder cheer from the Iraqis.

He kisses the forehead of his assigned security guard apologetically and carries on.

Mr Al Kalkhi has become a legend in his home town of Baghdad, where he is ­granted access to any ­stadium.

“He painted his car in Iraq’s colours, so wherever he goes people spot him,” says his friend Mohammed Dalash, who attended Wednesday’s match. “And when he is not in the stadium, he always wears the green colour in the Iraqi flag, even if he is at a funeral.”

Wamedh Al Kuraishi played football for Iraq during the 1970s and recalls hearing Mr Al Kalkhi’s cheers.

“For countless times we played and he cheered for us, we all love him,” says Mr Al ­Kuraishi, 60. “The man lost his voice because of us!”