The first match of the 2014 World Cup hasn’t even been played yet, but it’s already caused dilemmas for certain groups of fans. Brazilians, for instance, are considering rooting for the country’s rivals in protest of the billions their dysfunctional government has spent to host the tournament. Some Americans, meanwhile, wonder if they should ditch a U.S. team doomed for failure (Group of Death!) and instead back a foreign squad. Then there’s the vexing problem jihadis face: Though expressly forbidden from loving anything “Western,” they really, really love futbol.
But some terrorist groups are using people’s passion for soccer as a way to connect with potential jihadi supporters. In stark contrast to Boko Haram’s tactics, the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has featured soccer in its propaganda campaigns multiple times this year. They faked a video depicting famous French footballer Lassana Diarra as a jihadi fighter in Syria, sparking a rumor that went so viral that Diarra was forced to deny the claims. (“He has never set foot in Syria,” said his lawyer.)
We looked at World Cup chatter on leading jihadi Facebook pages to see which teams are the most popular among self-identifying supporters of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas around the world. One big takeaway: Jihadis are in some ways like any other fans–they support the local favorites. Because Al Qaeda followers are largely based in the Middle East, soccer teams that are either from that region or are popular there are also beloved among the terrorist group’s sympathizers. The same pattern holds true for both Hezbollah and Hamas.
Perhaps not surprisingly, among the Al Qaeda pages we searched, Algeria was the most popular national squad. The group’s Facebook fans are largely located in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which is also home to Les Fennecs, Algeria’s nickname.
Italy came in a close second, which would seem like something of a surprise. However, jihadis aside, the Italian team has a healthy following outside of Europe. According to a recent poll conducted in MENA nations, for example, Italy is the most popular team in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. (Qataris may even buy an Italian football club.)
Political reporter and soccer commentator Zack Roth speculates Italy’s popularity might be connected with broadcasting rights, as well as politics. “It might come down to TV availability [in MENA], where [Italy’s] Serie A is broadcast more frequently than [England’s] Premier League,” he tells Vocativ. Italy, Roth adds, is also viewed more favorably by people in the Middle East than northern European countries like England or Germany, “which are more politically associated with the Western coalition and allied with the U.S.”
Yet the French and English teams also rank high among Al Qaeda’s supporters, even though both countries have waged war against the terrorist network. France might have garnered a following because this year’s team includes six players who were either born in Africa or are of African descent, and are practicing Muslims. (Indeed, a number of the jihadi supporters were from Africa, according to their Facebook profiles.) England, for its part, probably benefits from hosting the world’s most successful soccer league, the Premier League.
And what about Ghana, the United States’s first foe in the World Cup? Apparently, when it comes to soccer, Al Qaeda’s Facebook fans don’t root for the enemy of their great enemy, as Ghana finished last.
Though Hezbollah are Shiite Muslims, making them the enemy of Sunni Muslim outfits like Al Qaeda, the two groups share similar tastes in soccer. The one exception is Brazil, which came out on top among Hezbollah supporters. No surprise there: Brazil is the most popular team among all soccer fans in the Middle East, according to polls. It also has the largest worldwide fan base, with 26 million Facebook followers from the other 31 World Cup nations. (See our World Cup Factbot below.)
What is surprising is how nations that politically support Hezbollah—Iran and the Ivory Coast—generated hardly any support among Hezbollah’s Facebook fans (both came in at 1 percent).
As with Al Qaeda, Algeria is by far the most popular team among the Hamas Facebook profiles we sampled, followed by host country Brazil and perennial favorites England. You might expect more Hamas supporters to cheer on Iran, given its political and financial backing of the group, but we didn’t find one Facebook like for Iran’s national team.
Coincidentally enough, soccer figured in the latest news about Hamas. Israel’s security agency announced today that it believes a Palestinian soccer player used his sports visa to meet with Hamas militants and deliver money.
Noam Binshtok contributed deep web reporting to this article.