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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)
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well as the public proclamation of the defeat of Daesh in December, led to suggestion that the competitive ban could be rescinded in 2018.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.