NAJAF, Iraq: Iraq hopes that hosting Gulf football friendlies, renovating its stadiums and outlawing weapons at matches will have persuaded FIFA to lift a ban on home competitive internationals, its sports minister said.
The country has not played full internationals on home turf for almost three decades, ever since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait that sparked an international embargo.
FIFA’s ban, covering all but local matches, stayed in place after the American-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
The ban was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during an Iraq-Jordan match in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil led world’s football’s governing body promptly to reinstate it.
Iraq is now allowed to host international friendlies at stadiums in Arbil, the southern port city of Basra and the shrine city of Karbala.
On February 28, Basra will host a friendly between Iraq and Saudi Arabia — the first Saudi national team to play on Iraqi soil in four decades.
“Politics is present in every domain, and Saudi Arabia has major political weight,” Sports and Youth Minister Abdulhussein Abttan told AFP in an interview at the international stadium of Najaf, south of Baghdad.
“The presence of the Saudi team in Iraq means a lot to us.”
Years of insecurity following the US-led invasion and the Islamic State group’s occupation of a swathes of northern and western Iraq turned hosting sports events into a major challenge.
But Iraq in December declared victory over the jihadists following a three-year battle, and FIFA finally relaxed the ban.
Now, Abttan wants the sport’s governing body to lift it entirely.
“I hope that this (Saudi) match will inspire other national teams to visit Iraq, which will help support our case for a total lifting of FIFA’s ban on matches in our stadiums,” Abttan said.
“We are also counting on the teams of Bahrain, Qatar and Iran, all of which also have political influence in sports.”
Politics extends into football
Next week’s friendly marks a warming of ties between Baghdad and Riyadh after decades of tension under Saddam as well as under Nuri al-Maliki, who was prime minister from 2006-2014.
Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi visited Riyadh in June and October 2016, and the two countries have since exchanged several trade delegations.
The detente is now extending into the realm of football.
But politics has also mixed with sport in the Gulf diplomatic crisis pitting a Saudi-led Arab bloc against Qatar, the host of the World Cup 2022.
The Gulf crisis forced organizers to move the eight-nation Gulf Cup from host Qatar to Kuwait. Doha agreed on condition that it would host the next Gulf tournament, in 2019.
Stadium gun ban
While Abttan’s efforts to bring football tournaments back to Iraqi soil appear to be bearing fruit, he faces challenges persuading other sports teams to visit the country.
He criticized Lebanon’s Al-Riyadi basketball club for refusing to play in Iraq in March, on security grounds.
“It’s unfortunate to find an Arab basketball club that refuses to play in Iraq for security reasons while there are Arab football clubs that are ready to come and play here,” he said.
“But it will not affect our efforts to lift the FIFA ban.”
He said that while some sports stadiums were faulty, such as in Arbil, “a lot of work has been done… and a lot of money has been spent” to bring them up to standard.
He said he is also determined to tackle the problem of armed men in stadiums.
In January, a supporter of a local team opened fire on the bus of the opposing club, although nobody was wounded in the incident.
Later the same month, Iraq’s Police club, owned by the interior ministry, was banned from playing in Baghdad’s main football ground following a brawl between police and stadium guards.
Military officers have been known to bring both cars and weapons into stadiums.
“Nobody could stop them because they are high ranking,” Abttan said.
“But now it is different, and in coordination with the interior ministry, we put an end to this situation, which was in total contradiction with FIFA rules.”