BASRA: After hours of anticipation, the lights of the majestic Basra International Stadium switched off, stunning the audience into silence. Collectively, they held their breath in suspense for the opening ceremony of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup in Iraq.
If the tournament being held in Iraq symbolized Iraq’s return to the global stage, then the ceremony certainly left its own indelible mark.
“I was surprised at what I saw,” said Khalid Al-Hiddi, an Omani football analyst for Bein Sports and Kass TV. “We were not expecting this from Iraq,” Al-Hiddi added. “This high level of technology, art and design was so impressive and was able to welcome us into Iraq’s rich culture.”
For more than an hour, viewers from across the world were left dazzled by a laser, fireworks and light show, including pitch-sized projections and live music and dance performances from some of Iraq’s most famous artists. The choreography alone to achieve such a complicated show should be commended.
The ceremony will live in the memory long after the 0-0 draw between Iraq and Oman that followed is forgotten.
On a personal note, I was incredibly moved by the powerful spectacle of seeing Iraq so beautifully celebrated in all its glory. I was immediately taken back to the series of recent mass public events that I have witnessed in Iraq and remembered how each had been for negative occasions — either for commemorating mass deaths from devastating car bombs or protesting about Iraq’s corrupt political elite.
Given the recent grievances, the unapologetic, pure joy this ceremony brought, with Iraq flags proudly waving across the stadium, immediately brought a tear to my eye and many around me.
The ceremony focussed on telling the story of Iraq through the ages, moments every Iraqi continues to be honored by. From the story of Sumerian being the first written language in the world to the creation of Baghdad, historical landmarks reminded the audience of Iraq’s long-standing contribution to world culture. This festival of national pride proved touching to many Iraqis across the globe.
“So emotional watching these videos from the US,” commented one follower on my Instagram stories of the ceremony.
The performances, however, did have some shortcomings.
“At no point was Basra highlighted,” said Sajjad, a disappointed resident of the host city. Not only was Basra not given its moment of glory during the ceremony, but Iraq’s diversity in general lacked representation. Iraq has 10 officially recognized minority groups, including Turkmen, Yazidis and Christians, but the ceremony focussed only on Iraq’s Arab and Muslim identity as references to Islam were peppered throughout the show.
Other failures occurred at the event, which broke the record for the highest attendance at an opening ceremony of any previous Arabian Gulf Cup tournament. It was announced that 65,000 spectators attended the occasion but the real figure is likely to be far higher, as every available space in the stadium was occupied from stairwells to railings. Many without a ticket were able to force themselves through poorly organized gates.
Thousands of fans were shuttled through bottle-neck doors and whether you had a legitimate ticket or not, the only way in was to stand strong and barge your way through the chaos. It was in stark contrast to Qatar’s highly organized spectacle only a few weeks ago, which was safe for children of all ages. Thankfully no injuries from Basra were announced, but the decision to force thousands of fans through a single door could have easily turned sour.
“You don’t understand that for the people of Iraq they have never seen anything like this and probably never will again,” said Ameen Al-Hassani, a 30-year-old software engineer from Baghdad. “They would do anything to make sure they don’t miss the occasion and if that means some pushing, they will be sure to do it.”
Once in, however, it was a different story as the tangible sense of joy could be felt. Small gestures were heart-warming. After setting up the pitch for the ceremony, for example, the ground staff were touched by a standing ovation from the staff. In another example, mid-way through the ceremony, sensing the magnitude of what they were witnessing, the audience in unison burst into chanting, “Global, global. Basra is now global.”
One celebrity missing from the performance was the highly anticipated return of Kadhim Al-Saher to Iraq. The singer has not performed in his home country for decades, opting to sing patriotic Iraqi songs across the world bar Iraq, but this week it was officially announced that he would be making a long-awaited return home.
The ceremony came to a close without Al-Saher’s attendance as fans aired their frustration across social media. The performances of a plethora of high-profile artists, from Hussam Al-Rassam to Rahma Riad, more than filled this gap.
A highlight for many was that FIFA President Gianni Infantino managed to make the journey to Basra and appeared impressed throughout the tournament. The opening ceremony vastly outshone any expectations people had of Iraq, and served as an emotional and proud moment for many Iraqis across the world. Let’s hope we have more of the same to look forward to throughout the tournament.