Osama bin Laden and his years as an Arsenal fan

Death of al-Qaeda leader renews interest in his love for the Gunners: was he hiding in the trophy room?

Osama bin Laden Emirates Stadium Arsenal

The death of Osama bin Laden has thrown the spotlight on the long-held claim that the al-Qaeda leader was an Arsenal fan. As the Gooner chant goes: "Osama, woah-woah, Osama, woah-waoh, he's hiding in Kabul, he loves the Arsenul". The terraces may have got his location wrong – it was in Abbottabad, Pakistan, not the Afghan capital where Bin Laden was taking refuge – but their claims that Bin Laden supported Arsenal certainly have some legitimacy. Back in November, 2001, just weeks after the atrocities of 9/11, author Adam Robinson claimed in his biography Bin Laden: Behind The Mask of Terror that Osama had attended a number of matches at Highbury when he was staying in the capital in the 1990s. Specifically, Robinson says, Bin Laden witnessed the Gunners' remarkable run to the European Cup Winners' Cup final in the 1993/94 season. So enthralled was he by George Graham's side that he bought his eldest son, Abdullah, an Ian Wright replica shirt. When the news first surfaced in late 2001, Arsenal moved swiftly to distance themselves from the al-Qaeda leader by enforcing an immediate ban. "We've seen the reports in the papers. Clearly he wouldn't be welcome at Highbury in the future," a club spokesman said. Supporter-run fan site Arseweb, meanwhile, took a more considered view. Naming Bin Laden alongside Fidel Castro and the Queen Mother in a list of 'Celebrity Gooners', the site's editorial team wrote that "Arseweb would like to believe that this makes North London ever so slightly less likely to become a target". A number of other Bin Laden biographers and old acquaintances have claimed that the Islamic fundamentalist had a particular penchant for the beautiful game. Childhood friend Khaled Batarfi told the Daily Mirror how he and Osama would often play football in Saudi Arabia. "In summer, early in the morning, after mosque, we'd come together to play football," Batarfi said. "We would argue amongst ourselves – 'this was a foul, that was a goal'. He was the only one who wouldn't argue, wouldn't fight. He would play just for the pleasure, but he refused to get into any argument with any of us.'' Former bodyguard Nasser al-Bahri claimed that Bin Laden's height made him a natural centre forward and a skilled volleyer of the ball, explaining: "He was so tall he didn't have to jump to smash the ball". Twitter humourists have warmed to the theme of Bin Laden's Arsenal support since his death was announced on Sunday. "It's been rumoured that Bin Laden spent 6 of the last ten years hiding undisturbed in Arsenal's trophy cabinet room" quipped one user.

Another tweeted on Monday: "After watching Arsenal yesterday it was perhaps unwise for Bin Laden to rush out into his yard out shouting 'Come on the Gunners'!!"

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was an editorial assistant at The Week in 2011. He has written pieces for The Guardian and The Independent, and has now joined The Telegraph. www.twitter.com/benrileysmith