Iraq throws down gauntlet to FIFA as jubilant fans rally for return of international football

Iraqi fans cheer on their team during the international friendly football match with Saudi Arabia last week. (AFP)
Updated 08 March 2018
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Iraq throws down gauntlet to FIFA as jubilant fans rally for return of international football

BASRA: Iraqi football fans lined the streets on the approach to Basra International Stadium, eagerly surrounding the white coach as it pulled up to the entrance. They sang and danced, determined to provide a fitting welcome. The doors drew open and those stepping from the coach were enthusiastically applauded as they walked down a red carpet, Iraqi soldiers saluting them from each side. 
The journalists from Saudi Arabia had arrived. 
Remarkable as it may seem, this was not a case of mistaken identity. Yes, the Saudi players received an even more enthusiastic welcome moments later, but the Iraqi supporters in Basra recognized the importance of journalists being present. This was a chance for their story to be told. 
“It has felt for so long that we have been shouting in the dark,” Omar, a shop owner from Basra, said. “To have international journalists, especially from a country like Saudi Arabia, makes us feel that, Inshallah, FIFA will now hear our voices.” 
The significance of Saudi Arabia’s visit to Iraq for an international friendly was well documented in the lead-up to the match. Political positioning has provided an interesting subtext, with the strengthening of Iraqi-Saudi relations after many years of tension understandably occupying many front pages.  It is football, however, that has been front and center for the people. 
“FIFA — End the prohibition, bring life back to our fields!” read the first of a series of signs placed strategically at the exit of Basra Airport. Banners adorned the stadium, too, pleading with world football’s governing body to finally lift the ban on competitive internationals they imposed six years ago. 
That has been an interminable wait for the Iraqi fans, who have been forced to watch games from Jordan, UAE, Iran and Malaysia, while those who went tried in vain to recreate the atmosphere of a home match in Iraq. 
A positive step came last year when friendly matches were permitted. The successful hosting of Jordan, Kenya and Syria, as well as the public proclamation of the defeat of Daesh in December, led to suggestion that the competitive ban could be rescinded in 2018. 
FIFA had finally opened the door and the visit of Saudi Arabia, a regional heavyweight in politics and football, was designed to kick that door down. 
From the dignitary-laden welcome at the airport to the exchange of flowers ahead of kick-off, and even the 4-1 scoreline in Iraq’s favor, there was certainly a celebratory feel to the fixture. 
“The happiness I feel right now is indescribable,” Iraqi journalist Ahmed Alawchi said after the match. “The presence of 60,000 spectators in the stadium is living proof that Iraq is safe and peaceful. It reflects well on Iraqi football and this is an important message for the world and for FIFA that the national team deserve to play matches here in Iraq.” 
Of course, expectations must be tempered with a degree of caution. Iraq remains a complicated place. While Daesh has been officially overcome, the reality is that insurgency has not been completely extinguished. That may understandably strike a chord of concern, but it is not enough to warrant a ban on competitive internationals. There are plenty of countries that encounter pockets of violence. 
What matters most is the safety of those at the match. And while the idea of a plane full of away fans landing in Baghdad is some way off yet, the game in Basra proved that a full stadium of home fans is not. The heavy army and police presence was there for the fans — not because of them. As has been the case for many years, people from geographical and religious lines were brought together by their love of the Iraqi national team. 
“You can see tonight that it doesn’t matter whether we are Shiite or Sunni, or whether we are from Baghdad or Basra,” said Ahmed, a Baghdad-based civil servant who had traveled six hours by minibus to attend the game. “We are all Iraqi and we all want to be able to show our support for our team.” 
It certainly appears that Iraq are no longer alone in their lobbying of FIFA. Last Wednesday’s match was attended by AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who took up the Iraqi baton by claiming the “time has come” to rescind the country’s ban. 
“We ask FIFA to take this decision and we invite FIFA’s leaders to come and watch matches in Iraq,” the Bahraini official said in a remark that appeared a little pointed given FIFA president Gianni Infantino had declined an invitation to the game in Basra. Iraqi officials have, however, been informed that the Swiss plans to visit the country in the coming months. 
Saudi Arabia were certainly impressed with their experience. Just days after the match, King Salman told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi that the Kingdom would finance the building of a new stadium in Iraq, the Saudi ruler describing the friendly as a unqualified “success”. 
The next step for Iraqi football is the hosting of a four-team tournament later this month in Karbala, while there is also much excitement about the imminent opening of the 30,000-seater New Najaf Stadium. The arena, which is an ambitious architectural homage to the Imm Ali Mosque in the shrine city, has been developed by the same company behind the Basra International Stadium.  
Beyond that, there are also plans to bring international football back to Baghdad. The Al-Shaab Stadium may not be as aesthetically impressive as Iraq’s newest stadiums, but many feel the capital city is still the spiritual home of football. 
“The AFC visited us and informed us we needed to make changes before we could host international matches again,” Bashir Al-Kufi, manager of Al Shaab Stadium. explained. “We have done as they asked — things such as improving the changing rooms and making more emergency exits — and now we are just waiting for AFC approval. 
“We have already reached out to Qatar and Bahrain, and I hope one of them will play in Baghdad soon. We are 100 percent ready.” 
It appears that Saudi Arabia’s visit to Basra may prove the catalyst for a reversal in Iraq’s football fortunes. After years of struggling for acceptance from those beyond their borders, there is now cause for optimism. Football can once again be a unifying force in this complex country. 


Time for the Sun to shine on Hyderabad in the IPL

Updated 22 March 2019
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Time for the Sun to shine on Hyderabad in the IPL

  • Can MS Dhoni lead the Super Kings to another IPL title?
  • Who are the players to watch out for?

LONDON: The 12th edition of the Indian Premier League gets underway today with the usual razzmatazz, stacks of cash — in cricketing terms at least, pure conspicuous consumption — on display. This is the form of leather on willow that is as close to pure Americana as you are going to find.
As much as $15 million was shelled out at this year’s auction on 60 players. You only have to look at the riches the players are now earning to realize why every big-hitting batsman or wily bowler wants a piece of the IPL. Varun Chakravarthy went for $1.2 million, a millionaire overnight having not even played for his country.
Once again the Chennai Super Kings are the team to beat. Under MS Dhoni the powerhouses have won three titles — a record they share with the Mumbai Indians.
Here we give you the lowdown on cricket’s brashest format and take a peek into our crystal ball to tell you what we think is going to happen.

DELHI CAPITALS (8th last year)

Have only made the last four three times, finished rock bottom last year and decided something had to change. So they changed their name from the Daredevils to the Capitals, the new name as prosaic as their past cricket. They have added Shikhar Dhawan for power at the top of the order and to compliment the decent bowling attack of Trent Boult and Kagiso Rabada.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: The only way is up but will finish outside the top four.

RAJASTHAN ROYALS (4th)

The winners of the first IPL they have made the last four three times since. A look at their batting line-up — Steve Smith, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Ajinkya Rahane — will always trouble the opposition bowlers and with Jofra Archer and Jaydev Unadkat in the attack will always take wickets. Can they back up their impressive team sheet with equally impressive results?
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Will reach the last four but will miss the departing Stokes and Buttler who leave for a pre-World Cup training camp.

KINGS PUNJAB (7th)

An impressive spin attack of Ravi Ashwin, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Chakravarthy will once again prove that T20, once thought to be the graveyard for slow bowlers, is a game built just for them. They will look for West Indies legend Chris Gayle to find his big-hitting range early on to give them the totals to defend.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Could prove to be the surprise package if, and it is a big if, their big names fire. We think they will just miss out on the last four.

Will Chris Gayle fire again this season? (AFP)

ROYAL CHALLENGERS BANGALORE (6th)

One look at their batting line-up is enough to give any bowler the dreaded yips. Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers could have their very own “who is the greatest short-form batsman of all-time” competition. The addition of Marcus Stoinis will give the side more balance and a chance of winning their first title.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: A side with Kohli and De Villiers cannot go three years without a top-four finish.

MUMBAI INDIANS (5th)

The Manchester United of the IPL, they have won three titles and with Rohit Sharma as captain, and a settled side — Kieron Pollard, Lasith Malinga and Jasprit Bumrah just three of the retained stars — will always be a danger. But they finished outside the top four last year and perhaps miss a bit of fire power in the batting department.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Another year outside the top four.

Virat Kohli is dangerous no matter what the format. (AFP) 

KOLKATA KNIGHT RIDERS (3)

Last year’s top-four finish was a surprise and there is the sense they will struggle to match that this time around. With Windies stars Carlos Brathwaite and Andre Russell in the side and spin king Sunil Narine they will always have a chance but it is perhaps expecting too much to repeat last season’s surge to the semis.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: They will not be able to repeat last year’s heroics and will finish in sixth.

CHENNAI SUPER KINGS (Champions)

The team to beat, they have kept most of their title-winning side from last year and still have MS Dhoni — will he ever retire? — at the helm. It is hard to make a case for them not reaching the final, harder still not making the last four. If there is one possible worry is it that they have not strengthened much over the winter.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: In the last four.

SUNRISERS HYDERABAD (2nd)

Will still be smarting from their heavy defeat in the final at the hands of Chennai last year. They look to have the strongest batting line-up with Kane Williamson, Martin Guptil, Jonny Bairstow and David Warner to share the big-hitting responsibilities and with spinner of the moment Rashid Khan they will always be able to take wickets.
ARAB NEWS SAYS: Champions