Not everybody will be able to appreciate the significance of Iraq’s win in the 2023 Gulf Cup final. After all, the Gulf Cup is not recognised by FIFA has an official tournament, unlike the World Cup or the Asian Cup. However, Iraqi fans worldwide have not stopped celebrating since the full time whistle was blown in Basra last Thursday. For many young Iraqi fans, this was their first time witnessing their national team lifting a trophy. Older fans however will still remember the Asian Cup victory in 2007, our last major trophy until this recent win.
The coverage for the Gulf Cup was also noticeably greater than previous editions of the same tournament. Huge broadcasting channels worldwide were providing coverage of the events in Basra, which were also attended by Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA. Likewise, the opening ceremony was beautifully renditioned, showcasing Iraq’s culture and rich history to the world. Throughout the tournament, Iraqi fans flooded the streets and stadiums to support their beloved national team. However, the final saw events take an ugly turn. During the course of the tournament, fans had been turning up to games hours before kickoff in order to ensure a seat in the stadium. Prior to the final, fans turned out in their tens of thousands to support their national team. Naturally, not all held tickets to the match and some even tried to force their way into the stadium – some successfully so. Consequently, this escalated further, turning into a stampede.
As of current reports, there was one confirmed death and 20 individuals injured as a result. Our deepest condolences go to the families of those affected by the incident. However, whilst this travesty shouldn’t be forgotten, it’s important that the global media avoids fixating on this one incident and let it overlook what has been a hugely successful tournament for Iraq and the Iraqi FA. Despite being the first tournament held in Iraq for over 44 years, the FA ensured the logistics of this tournament ran smoothly from its initiation. That is not to say that things have been perfect and that the Iraqi FA have been without fault – rather, it’s important to acknowledge that successfully hosting a tournament of this magnitude will inevitably result in some oversights and teething problems.
The neighbouring Gulf countries have been grateful for the hospitality their citizens have received throughout the two weeks in which their fans were welcomed into Iraq with open hands – free food, accommodation and gifts. To quote one Qatari visiter; “I could have left my wallet back in Doha and I would have been okay for my entire trip!”. Moreover, the quality of football on display has been a sight for sore eyes, helped further by the facilities provided to all the national teams: top quality hotels, elite training facilities and world class stadiums to hosts the games. The 2023 Gulf Cup was a huge success by all measures and it was a fitting end to see Iraq win the tournament in such spectacular fashion. The players deserved it for their brave performances and the fans deserved to celebrate this victory as they have had to wait over four decades to see their team compete in a tournament on home soil.
Fans turning up to games early and turning up in their hundreds of thousands for a football match shouldn’t be seen as Iraqi fans being chaotic or wild. Rather, it should be used as an example to highlight to FIFA and the rest of the world how much our fans love football and our national team. It is a crime that Iraq continues to be barred from hosting official international fixtures on home soil. The sad reality is that Iraqi fans have been deprived from watching their national team for so long that it leads to the incidents that we saw on the day of the final. Minor adjustments and tweaks from our FA and local government administrations will collaborate to ensure similar incidents are avoided in the future.
Jesus Casas, the new Iraqi manager, was able to transform the national team into a stubborn machine able to compete with the best in Asia, securing victories against the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia on his route to crowing Iraq 2023 Gulf Cup Champions. Whilst he has done a miraculous job, a huge part of the praise needs to be awarded to the fans, who flocked from all across the world to Basra just to support their national team. The fans were behind the players the entire tournament and gave them the edge when they needed it most, as we saw in those final few minutes of extra time in the final versus Oman. Football is nothing without the fans, and Iraqi fans are as passionate as they come. Hopefully, FIFA and the rest of the world can see just how much football means to us and grant us our right to finally play official fixtures in Iraq. As we saw in the Gulf Cup, with our fans fully behind the national team, Iraq are able to produce huge performances and beat the best teams on the continent. The players deserve to play in front of their fans, and the fans deserve to watch their national team play in Iraq. Enough is enough – it’s time to lift the ban on Iraq and let football come home.