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. 


OUR MOLE IN MOSCOW: World Cup diaries

Updated 19 June 2018
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OUR MOLE IN MOSCOW: World Cup diaries

 

Read the latest of Gary Meenaghan’s Russian Dispatches, a regular blog where he will share observations, triumphs, failures and, most likely, stories of getting lost on long-distance trains during the month-long 2018 World Cup.

ST PETERSBURG: The dateline of this blog may read St Petersburg, but I might actually be closer to Moscow. A more exact dateline would probably be ‘IN TRANSIT’. 

Since the World Cup kicked off, I’ve yet to sleep in a bed. And have no plans to do so again until at least tomorrow night. While Russia is a gargantuan country, one of the most praiseworthy elements of its World Cup so far is the free travel provided by the host country. Month-long tournaments can be expensive affairs for the hordes of travelling fans, many of whom save for years to make the pilgrimage. 

In Brazil four years ago, where domestic flights were essential, I ended up boarding 29 planes in 28 days. It was hectic and hassle and highly time-consuming, but it was the only way to attend the games I needed to attend. Many fans hoping to follow their team throughout instead chose to base themselves in one city to save the expense of much-inflated flight prices. 

Here in Russia, it’s a different story. Not only do matchday ticket-holders enjoy free travel on the local metro, tram and bus systems, but they can also enjoy free train travel between host cities. I’ve been shuttling up and down the 215km track between Moscow and St Petersburg these past couple of nights, but will tonight head south, making the 1000km trip to Rostov-on-Don, where Saudi Arabia will play their second group game against Uruguay. 

While train travel provides a cheaper alternative to flying, it can obviously mean long, long journeys. My train from Volgograd to Moscow next month will take 24.5 hours, but with bunkbeds and wifi and a cafe serving hot food, for those without Russian dispatches to write, the train offers a perfect setting to relax and zone out for a few hours, complete with postcard views out the window.

With the small compartments sleeping four to a cabin, there is also a great chance to meet other people enjoying a World Cup adventure. On Thursday night, I shared a cabin with a 60-year-old Nicaraguan woman who said she is travelling alone and has tickets for four games. A resident of Tampa, in Florida, she was on route to St Petersburg to watch Iran versus Morocco.. 

“I don’t really understand the rules,” she said. “But I just love the atmosphere.”

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MOSCOW: If love conquers all, language must surely threaten to do the opposite: it can ruin the best laid plans, get you in unnecessary trouble, and — in Russia at least — almost always results in you heading the wrong way on public transport.

Brazil 2014 posed problems for non-Portuguese speakers, but at least some of the words appeared similar: Maracana is Maracanã, taxi is still taxi, hotel is hotel. Here, the words appear in Cyrillic, so ‘STOP’ looks more like ‘CTON’. With some of the letters the same, it lures you into a false sense of security; ou think you can transliterate and understand more than you do. 

A veteran World Cup goer who I was speaking to the other day said this summer is proving more difficult than the 2002 tournament in Japan and Korea. At least there, you knew you had no idea what anything said so were always on guard. Here, if not careful, you can become complacent in your orienteering and end up totally lost — and with nobody to ask for help.

Another issue is that many Russian landmarks seem to have various different names. When I reserved a train ticket through FIFA’s free ride programme, the departure station in Moscow was marked as Passazhirskaya Station. When the official ticket arrived in my inbox, the point of departure was marked as Oktiabrskaia Station. 

I went with the name on the ticket and found Oktiabrskaia station easy enough through Google Maps. On arrival, however, I quickly discovered there is no railway there, only a metro — and it certainly did not go as far as Saint Petersburg. I searched again, this time for Passazhirskaya only to find it is located on the other side of the city. 

A random online forum cleared up the confusion: “Oktiabrskaia also goes by the names Passazhirskaya and Kazansky and Yaroslavsky . However, it most commonly known as Leningradsky Station…” 

Yup, cleared up.

With my departure time fast approaching, the metro was no longer an option so I tried calling an Uber, which redirected me to the Russian equivalent Gett. With the geolocation on my phone playing up in Russia (for some unknown reason) the taxi did not know where to pick me up. After a few frustrating conversations with random people on the street, I eventually sussed out my location and ‘got a Gett’. 

The Google Maps issue was an example of how phone apps can’t be relied on as they are at home. Another? Saturday’s match between Argentina and Iceland in Moscow was held at Spartak Stadium. If you, however, entered “Spartak Stadium” into Google Maps to calculate the quickest way to get there, it would direct you towards Spartak Stadium in northeastern Moscow. Instead, to reach the game, you needed to enter Otkritie Arena, which would then provide directions to the newly-rebranded Spartak Stadium, situated in northwestern Mocow. “Uma confusão”, as they would say in Brazil. 

It has only been a few days since the opening match, but the fact I have yet to miss a train or game is amazing. Now I am on a 20-hour train from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don, which is 1,300km away from Rostov — which naturally is the destination that was marked on my ticket.

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MOSCOW: If, as the saying goes, time moves slowly in a Russian winter, it moves at the speed of a Maglev train the week before a World Cup. It is seven days since I touched down in Moscow, yet it feels more like one very long, sleep-deprived 24-hours. Perhaps it is because the sun sets after 9pm and the sky is white again before 4am. Or maybe it is because with more than 2,000 international media having descended on the country, there is news breaking with all the regularity of a drummer in an Arabic marching band.

This is the third World Cup I have had the privilege to cover and the thrill never wears off. Not only because it is elite international football in a country that is rolling out its red carpet for visitors, but there are few, if any, events in the world that bring together so many nationalities.

Outside the Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the first match between Saudi Arabia and Russia, you could walk for five minutes and pass swarms of fans from Mexico and Haiti, Peru and Ethiopia, Brazil and Nicaragua. There were fake sheikhs, Lionel Messi doppelgängers and a man dressed as Father Christmas. There was a gargantuan African head-to-toe in red, white and blue body-paint.

Yet it is not necessarily always the fun-filled, five-week festival your friends and family tend to think. It can be a highly pressurised environment with a lot of stress and sleepless nights. Especially when, on the eve of the opening game, in a taxi on the way to the FIFA Congress, with news filtering through that Spain’s Julen Lopetegui was about to be fired and a decision on who would win hosting rights for the 2016 World Cup just hours away ... the motherboard of my laptop decided to explode. 

The timing could not have been worse. No computer means lost articles means frustrated bosses means no future assignments means a potential early flight home. With five weeks of features lined up and a travel itinerary that involves changing cities every other day, I feared the worst. 

Fortunately, I found a small shop in Moscow with staff that speak good English. Not only will they replace the motherboard, they have given me a spare laptop — fitted with my own hard-drive — to use for the few days it will take for the motherboard to arrive. They have been an absolute Godsend without whom I’d have been totally lost. Instead now I am just lost on the Moscow Metro, but that is for another day…