Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end

Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end
Large banner welcomes the Qatari national football team as part of preparations ahead of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup football championship in Iraq's southern city of Basra. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 January 2023

Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end

Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end
  • Hosting of 25th Arabian Gulf Cup in Basra has brought joy to locals and is a sign the nation is open for business after decades of strife

BASRA: There is an air of excitement around Basra. The streets of the southern Iraqi city are full. The markets, propped up along the famed Shatt Al-Arab river delta, are sprawling as music blasts from speakers in celebration.

Basra is making a statement on behalf of the country: 20 years on from the Iraq war, Iraq is back. The nation is making its mark on the global stage and is beginning with Basra hosting the 25th Arab Gulf Cup.

If anything, this feels more like a welcome-back ceremony. It is the first time Iraq has hosted the tournament since 1979. Thanks to years of war, sanctions and political corruption and dictatorship, FIFA has not permitted Iraq to host international football matches on its home turf for three decades. That ban was lifted in late 2021 and paved the way for Iraq to host the prestigious tournament, having previously won the trophy three times.

This long period of absence from the international scene has left Iraq an increasingly isolated country. With a passport consistently ranked one of the lowest in the world, few Iraqis have the privilege to travel and even fewer from the international community have ventured into the war-torn nation for tourism. The tide has been turning in recent years, however, with Iraq now ranked the sixth-fastest growing economy in the world, and the Arabian Gulf Cup is the ideal place to advertise to its neighbors that Iraq is open again for tourism and trade.

Basra is Iraq’s economic powerhouse and football is not the first association people make with the city. Responsible for 70 percent of Iraq’s crude oil production — the nation’s main source of income — and famed for its dates whose syrup can even be found on the shelves of Walmart’s across the US, the Middle East’s eyes will instead be focussed on the football that the city is hosting as thousands descend on Iraq’s economic capital from around the world.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Raid Ali, an Iraqi dentist living in Cardiff, Wales who caught two overnight flights just to see the opening ceremony. “I had to be a part of it, we don’t know how long Iraq is going to be stable for.”

For years Iraq has become synonymous with war and violence. Car bombs and deadly attacks became so common that they rarely caused a ripple in media networks worldwide. But despite the security and economic concerns, one thing that has always united Iraqis is their love of football. Fans filled cafes whenever Lionel Messi’s Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid would play.

One footballing memory stands out for most Iraqis. Against all the odds, the Iraqi men’s national soccer team won the Asian Cup in 2007 against local behemoths Saudi Arabia, despite it being Iraq’s worst year of violence. Saudis in the past have told me that, on that day, they supported Iraq.

“Iraq’s win in 2007 really ignited my love for my country once again,” said Hassanane Balal, host of the definitive ‘Iraq Football Podcast.’ “I was proud to be Iraqi when I saw them lift that cup.”

Football has shown how it transcends mere entertainment. Just as Iraq’s 2007 heroic team eased the country’s divisions, the nation is now united over bringing a successful tournament to Iraq. The Gulf Cup has put a smile on many Iraqi faces, and after years of suffering they surely deserve it.

Hosting the tournament is not just about the football, it is about the progress and stability of Iraq that it symbolizes, as well as being a welcoming for its international neighbors. Even before the first ball has been kicked, Ali says: “I can feel myself getting emotional already.”

That’s what this event means to so many Iraqis.