Decades of torment and instability have left football as a final glimmer of hope that continues to unify Iraqis against all odds. FIFA’s decision to sanction Saddam Hussain following his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 resulted in Iraq being banned from hosting international matches. Nearly three decades on from the initial ban, Iraqis will be delighted to see FIFA finally lift that ban on their homeland.
Karbala, Basra and Erbil have played pivotal roles over the last three years, hosting numerous friendlies and mini-competitions to demonstrate Iraq’s ability to host international teams. Saudi Arabia were the last team to take on the Lions of Mesopotamia in their backyard, losing 4-1 in a friendly held in late February. Kenya, Jordan and Syria have also taken part in successful friendliess that ended with no major incidents of note.
The FIFA Council met in Bogota to discuss potentially removing the ban on Iraqi stadiums for competitive games. They decided to partially lift the ban on Iraq, meaning they’re able to play in Karbala, Basra and Erbil. The council decided to monitor the situation in Baghdad further before deciding to remove the ban on the capital too. The decision comes as a huge relief for the national team and fans, who are eager to once again have football return to their homeland.
Playing your home games on neutral venues will never come close to replicating the same atmosphere that Iraqis are known to generate at football matches. No Gulf country possesses the same love for football as Iraqis, as is evident by the usually subdued atmospheres in their home games. On the other hand, Iraqis are some of the most passionate fans on Earth. Nearly three decades of sanctions has only made the fans more keen to watch their beloved national team, and so they will be in full voice once their ban is lifted once and for all. This sort of hostile environment will prove intimidating for opposition players, who are used to playing in half-empty stadiums across Asia. Likewise, the Iraq players will be inspired at the spectacle of 60,000 green shirts singing their national anthem. Having so many fans cheer your name can be the difference between a win and a draw – hearing the fans roar can play a huge role in motivating a player. Often, these small margins are the difference between success and failure. Unfortunately, with Iraq only able to play competitive games abroad, in empty stadiums, they are automatically impeded. The atmosphere is completely flat and the players are unable to gain any advantage over opposition teams, despite the fact that the game is supposed to be a ‘home fixture’ for Iraq. Karrar Mohammed described the atmosphere in Iraq’s recent 4-1 win over Saudi Arabia as a “carnival, not a football match”. The player compared his situation to someone who has been “starved of food for an entire week” and that he was “hungry” to represent Iraq in front of his home fans.
Quality of Pitches
Poor playing surfaces, along with poor tactics, have resulted in Iraq playing a direct style of football for numerous years. When afforded the luxury of good quality pitches, Iraq have usually been able to play a fairly comfortable passing game. However, when in most Middle Eastern countries, the poor surface makes it impossible for fluid football to take place – this is nearly always the case when Iraq has played their ‘home games’ in Iran. Naturally, Iraq’s tactics will involve the defence launching the ball high up for the lone striker to chase down, completely eliminating the midfield. Technically gifted players like Ahmed Yasin and Justin Meram are unable to replicate their club form as the ball will often bobble at their feet whilst they try to dribble across the uneven surface. With Iraq hosting their own games, they will be able to lay their own pitches and care for the surface. This may be key in Iraq being able to play a more possession-based game, at least during home fixtures.
Hosting international football matches will play a huge role for Iraq’s tourism industry. Along with increased ticket sales, fans will flock from far and wide to see their national team take on the Lions of Mesopotamia. It can be expected that foreign fans will look to spend money on hotels, restaurants and in local shops, all of which is much needed in Iraq’s oil-dependant economy. Likewise, Iraqi fans following their national team around the country will also look to spend when traveling from one city to another. The revenue generated from ticket sales will hopefully be reinvested by the Iraqi FA into new initiatives that will modernise the domestic game. Investment in further stadiums, grassroot pitches and updated facilities will allow Iraq to once again compete with Asia’s finest.
Iraqis just want to live a normal life. Decades of war and instability have resulted in the majority of Iraqis being sick and tired of the uncertainty plaguing their day to day activities. Being able to watch their national team play in Iraq once again will be a huge morale booster for the entire country. It will act as a crucial reminder that Iraq is no different to any other country and that safety is once again the norm in our streets. For children growing up in Iraq, being able to watch their childhood heros wear the famous green jersey will be a memory they will never forget.
The impressive Basra stadium was developed as part of proposal to have the Gulf Cup 2018 set in Iraq. Due to financial constraints, Iraq had to withdraw from hosting the competition. Previous attempts at hosting the competition in both 2013 and 2014 were also abandoned due to security fears. With normality returning to everyday life in Iraq, removing the ban will give Iraq a perfect platform to host future tournaments and competitions. The seasoned Al-Shaab stadium in Baghdad will be one of many to welcome international teams, alongside the newly constructed Karbala Sports City and Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil.