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Iraq Football Still Struggling to Shake off Image of Insecurity

John Duerden |
Football is the most popular sport in Iraq and has been capable of bringing various sections of the country together. Fans were looking forward to a first home international in over a decade, but hopes have been dashed.

Iraqi football fans may not host an upcoming international after all

Iraq has become accustomed to not being able to host competitive international football games. The Iran-Iraq war in the eighties, the first Gulf War, a US-led invasion in 2003 and the ensuing instability all resulted in FIFA ordering the country to play its home games in third countries such as Jordan and Qatar.

With the security situation improving in recent years however, there was delight in February when the Iraq Football Association announced that the world governing body had given the green light to Baghdad hosting the March 24 World Cup qualifier against the United Arab Emirates, a first official game in the capital since 2001.

Five days before kickoff however, FIFA announced that the game was being switched to Riyadh. The change of mind came after a missile attack on the northern city of Erbil on March 14, one launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who claimed that they were targeting an Israeli "Strategic Centre."

A wide view of the al-Madina International stadium in Baghdad.

The al-Madina stadium in Baghdad was due to host Iraq vs UAE but will sit empty as Iraq face them in Riyadh instead.

Different priorities

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and an expert on the politics of football in the Middle East, says there is a difference in priorities between Iraq and FIFA.

"Iraq has an interest in playing at home for football reasons," said Dorsey. "It is also, however, about getting past the international image of conflict and the ability to hold a World Cup qualifier is an indicator of that. That is Iraq's concern however, not FIFA's."

That is why Iraq's reaction has been one of dismay and also some anger  "Football is played all over the country with no issues whatsoever,” said midfielder Ahmed Yasin on social media. "This ban makes no sense. How much longer do we have to wait?" Fans protested during the national team's training sessions and started a social media campaign with the hashtag #FootballinBaghdad. An Iraq Football Association official told DW that the federation had tried to persuade FIFA to reverse the switch, all to no avail.

Dorsey can see both sides of the argument. "Iraq is a country where it is unlikely something would happen but it is a country where missiles are fired and that would not be a concern if you went to Paris, for example,"sey told DW. "FIFA may be being overcautious but it is hard to take an issue with it."

VAE, Doha | Fans der Irakischen Fussballmanschaft im Spiel VAE - Irak

Football reasons

Apart from a single qualifier in the northern city of Erbil against Jordan in 2011 and in the southern port of Basra against Hong Kong in 2019, Iraq's attempts to qualify for a first World Cup since their debut appearance in 1986 have been hit by being unable to play at home.

In July 2021, the federation appointed Dick Advocaat ahead of the final round of qualifiers. The former Netherlands boss believes that playing home games in Qatar was a significant disadvantage especia,lly when taking on the continent's best teams. 

"Everyone knows that you need good performances at home to qualify for a World Cup but it is difficult for Iraq to have that," Advocaat told DW. "Teams like South Korea and Iran have huge crowds behind them in Seoul and Tehran and it makes a big difference. If Iraq could have the same in Baghdad, they would be a strong force as they have some talented players."

In qualification, Iraq finished a long way behind Iran and South Korea, and collected just five points from the first eight games. Had the team been able to play in front of 30,000 passionate fans in Baghdad, one or two of those five draws could have become victories which would have given the team a much higher chance of finishing third in the group and entering the playoff route to the World Cup.

A wide view of both teams in the stadium as Qatar take on Iraq in Qatar.

Iraq have been playing their home games in third countries, including here in Qatar.

A new start for Iraq

Officials, fans and players in Iraq insist that all is fine. One player, who asked to remain anonymous, told DW. "We all know of the situation in the past but FIFA are still making these decisions based on the past and not the present."

He contrasted the recent Erbil attacks, which did not result in any fatalities and, according to reports injured one civilian, with January's missile strikes on Abu Dhabi that killed three people. "The UAE still plays at home and there is not even a debate about it."

On March 18, Iraq defeated Zambia 3-1 in front of a passionate crowd in a Baghdad friendly game. Zambia coach Aljosa Asanovic paid tribute to the hosts. "We found the situation to be perfect, and the streets of the capital are filled with security and peace. Iraq deserves to play at its own stadiums.”

There have been friendly games played in Iraq before and, as FIFA's decision has shown, staging official competitive games is a different matter. Iraqi football hopes that the start of a new era is not far away but it is out of their hands as Dorsey pointed out. "It will take as long as it takes."

Edited by: Matt Pearson

Courtesy: DW

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