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Saudi-Iraq football match in Basra kicks off new era

Iraqi national football team players take part in a training session on Feb. 27, 2018 in the city of Basra a day ahead of their friendly match against Saudi (Arabia.Haidarr Mohammed Ali/AFP)
Saudi Arabia will today play their first football match in Iraq for almost four decades in a historic meeting in Basra.

The game in the 60,000-seat stadium in Basra Sports City sends a defiant message after the defeat of Daesh and highlights Saudi Arabia’s rapidly improving relations with Baghdad.

The match is also of great importance for Iraqi football. The friendly is a rare international played on Iraqi soil. The country has not played full internationals at home since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The last time the two teams met in Iraq was in Baghdad in April 1979. Iran was in the throes of its revolution, and in little over a year Iraq was plunged into the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war.

In Basra, a mood of excitement has swept the city with the arrival of the Green Falcons, who have qualified for the 2018 World Cup.

“For us, seeing Arab teams play in Basra was a dream,” Ammar Kitan, 56, who works for the city council, told AFP.

This dream “is not only important for Basra but for all Iraq,” said Ahmed Massoud, a 25-year-old student, because “this match against a team that goes to the World Cup will help lift the (FIFA) ban and prove that the city is safe.”

Former Iraq coach Jorvan Vieira told Arab News that the match represents a “very important moment” for football in the country.

“Saudi Arabia is a big, influential country in the region — both in football and politics — and their national team is very well respected.

“This kind of match against a strong team like Saudi Arabia will raise the profile and hopefully help FIFA see that competitive matches should be considered again.”

The authorities have said they will hand out hundreds of Saudi green flags in the run-up to kick-off.

Residents of the city have also launched a social media campaign welcoming the Saudi players called “Greens, you’re at home!”

For the Saudi team, coming from a 3-0 win against Moldova in Jeddah on Monday, the match will offer the chance to right the wrongs of 39 years ago. That match ended with a 2-0 victory for Iraq.

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