Iraq hopes to bring FIFA Soccer back to its Stadiums

By Mustafa Saadoun for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iraq has been working to get the FIFA ban on its soccer stadiums lifted by hosting showcase games and wooing international soccer stars to tour the country's facilities.

The latest games were held June 26 and June 29 in Karbala between the Iraqi Olympic team and its Syrian counterpart. Iraq won the first game 2-0 and the second game ended in a 1-1 tie.

The games come as Iraq is trying to get the international governing body for soccer to lift its ban, which has been in place since 2013. In May, FIFA agreed to let Iraq host unofficial games, or "friendlies," during a three-month trial period. Before its game with the Syrian Olympic team, the Iraqi national team played June 1 against the Jordanian team at Basra International Stadium in southern Iraq. About 65,000 spectators turned out to see Iraq win 1-0.

In addition to hosting unofficial games, Iraq is trying to attract international soccer stars to visit its sports facilities. Iraq is preparing to receive a group of international soccer stars to participate in a friendly game with Iraq's standout players. On June 18, former Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids arrived in Iraq to explore Basra International Stadium, where the game will be played Aug. 1.

“The Iraqi people have a passion for [soccer] and the promotional games will contribute to lifting the ban imposed on Iraqi soccer,” Davids said during his visit. Ahmed Musawi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Youth and Sports, greeted Davids.

Musawi told Al-Monitor, “There are signs that the ban could be lifted, especially amid the games that Iraq played against Jordan and Syria. We have sensed a great [will] on the part of the Arab and international federations to lift the ban on Iraqi stadiums.”

He added, “There are international companies ready to cooperate with Iraq in organizing international games. … Also, the most prominent game between international and Iraqi soccer stars will take place in August.”

Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, former Brazilian soccer stars, former Dutch soccer star Clarence Seedorf and Davids are among the sports celebrities who will be coming to Basra.

A source in the Ministry of Youth and Sports told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Once the friendly games to be held in Iraqi stadiums are over, Iraq will submit a special dossier about those games and the related organizational measures to the International Federation of Football [FIFA], along with videos showing the spectators.”

Iraq has seen its share of bans on hosting games. The ban imposed since 2013 came after a coach was killed by security forces and the country was experiencing frequent jihadi attacks. Other safety-related bans were imposed in 1985 during the Iran-Iraq War, in 1990 with the invasion of Kuwait and in 2003 during the US war on Iraq. In 2009, the Iraqi National Olympic Committee disbanded the Iraq Football Association (IFA) and Iraqi security forces took over the IFA's offices.

The FIFA Emergency Committee then suspended the IFA. The Iraqi Olympic Committee and the IFA had a long-running dispute over who was in charge of the country's soccer program.

In a promising sign, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) allowed Iraq to host a conference game in May between two Iraqi teams: Air Force and Al-Zawraa.

Though Iraq has had to play all of its official FIFA games outside its own stadiums in recent years, it has managed a number of achievements. It ranked No. 4 at the 2004 Athens Olympics, took first place in the West Asian Games in 2005, won the AFC Asian Cup in 2007 and the Arab Cup for Juniors for the first time in 2014.

The national team also won the AFC Asian U-22 cup for Olympic teams in 2014, the AFC Asian U-16 cup in 2016 and the AFC Asian U-14 cup in 2014. Also, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya Iraqi soccer club won the AFC Cup in 2016. In 2013, Iraq won the World Military Championship for the fourth time.

During a June 1 meeting with the Jordanian Football Association president in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, “Sports unite Iraqis and lifting the embargo will be a good omen and a security message for a new stage.”

Minister of Youth and Sports Abdul-Hussein Abtan also extended an invitation last month to the US national soccer team to come to Iraq and play a friendly game with the Iraqi national team. US Embassy Charge d'Affaires Stephanie Williams said at the time that Iraq had earned a lifting of the ban in part because of the state of its sports stadiums.

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