Boost for embattled Iraq football as Basra set to host Gulf Cup 2023

Boost for embattled Iraq football as Basra set to host Gulf Cup 2023
Iraq is one of Asia’s biggest football nations. (File/AFP)
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Updated 01 July 2022

Boost for embattled Iraq football as Basra set to host Gulf Cup 2023

Boost for embattled Iraq football as Basra set to host Gulf Cup 2023
  • Many delays to 25th edition of the 8-team tournament now set for next January

The 25th Gulf Cup that was scheduled to take place in December 2021 will be held in the Iraqi city of Basra in January 2023, the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation announced on Thursday. The body voted unanimously to return the competition to the country for the first time since it was staged in Baghdad back in 1979.

That was also the first time Iraq won the title and the team repeated the feat in 1984 and 1988. But the last time the eight-nation biennial tournament took place was in December 2019 in Qatar when Bahrain lifted the trophy. The 2021 version was postponed as facilities including stadiums and hotels in the southern Iraqi city were not ready. It was expected to take place in 2022 but that proved to be impossible due to a crowded international schedule, which included World Cup qualifiers, Asian Cup qualifiers and the Arab Cup, not to mention the World Cup itself.

Basra has been working hard to improve its sporting facilities and general infrastructure and after inspection by AGCFF officials, the go-ahead was given to stage the first major football competition in the country since the US-led invasion in 2003. FIFA has been concerned about the security situation in the country for a while, due to the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties and the first Gulf War in the following decade.

The prospect of eight teams — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Yemen —coming to the southern port city is thus a big deal for the host nation.

“Congratulations to Iraq and the dear Basra for hosting the 25th Gulf Championship,” said the country’s president Barham Salih, adding “it is a merit worthy of Iraq and its people after more than four decades deprived of that.”

Salih paid tribute to “all the governmental and popular efforts and our sports fans that contributed to achieving this achievement, which embodies the Iraqis’ ethos of generosity and hospitality.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was also delighted and promised that Basra would put on a great show.

“We congratulate our beloved Iraq and Basra after this long-awaited tournament (has been awarded to us). We promise our people and our brothers in the Gulf that this football event will be a model in football circles.”

In the almost two decades since Iraq was invaded, only in 2011 have World Cup qualifiers been held in the country due to FIFA concerns over security. There was disappointment earlier this year as the world governing body, which had originally allowed Baghdad to host March’s qualifier against the UAE, switched the game to Saudi Arabia just days before kick-off after missile attacks in the north of the country.

This latest decision could mark the beginning of a new era for Iraqi football on and off the pitch. For as long as anyone, around the age of 50 remembers, Iraq’s home games have usually taken place in third countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But once the Gulf Cup, which is not a FIFA-sanctioned competition, is done and dusted, then it is hoped that Iraq will be given the green light to play competitive games in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Iraq is one of Asia’s biggest football nations and won the 2007 Asian Cup despite the chaotic situation back home. The country has only appeared at one World Cup, back in 1986, and it is likely that there would have been other appearances had the team been allowed to play qualifiers on home soil. With the 2026 World Cup expanding to include eight automatic berths from Asia, doubling the current total of four, if the Gulf Cup leads to a change in FIFA’s stance, then Iraq will have a great chance of going to North America.

First though, there is a need to perform well off the field in January.

“We are now facing a great challenge, as we are only six months away from the start of the tournament,” said Adnan Dirjal, the president of the Iraq Football Association. “This requires everyone to do a great deal of work and to double their efforts.”

“We are looking forward to the challenge however and to welcoming the Gulf Cup to our country and putting on a great event.”