Basra (Iraq) (AFP) – Iraq faced Jordan in the southern city of Basra on Thursday in their first match at home since football’s governing body FIFA lifted a multi-year ban on international friendlies.
Iraqis’ passion for football cuts across the deep religious and political divisions that have fuelled horrific violence in the country for years, but that same violence has led to periodic bans on matches being held in the country.
Now the national team is finally back on the field in Iraq, and fans are both happy and proud about the homecoming.
“Now we truly feel the atmosphere of football, and we embrace our national team after it was far from us over the past years,” said Hazem Mousa, a 46-year-old teacher.
Iraq returned the embrace with a 1-0 victory thanks to Alaa Abdul-Zahra’s 14th minute strike.
“I feel proud and I see the fans return to support the team,” 32-year-old engineer Haidar Aboud said.
“What makes me prouder is the feeling of responsibility. Everyone wants to make this event a success.”
That is key for Iraq, currently under a three-month FIFA-imposed probation period during which their ability to host matches will be assessed.
If it goes well, official international matches as well as friendlies may return to the country.
FIFA banned Iraq from hosting friendlies in 2013 afer a coach was killed by security forces, only lifting it last month.
Violence was rising in 2013, part of a multi-year crescendo of bloodshed that culminated in the Islamic State group’s takeover of large areas north and west of Baghdad the following summer.
Among the targets of frequent jihadist attacks in 2013 were football pitches where Iraqi children played and cafes broadcasting matches.
On Thursday, security was tight in Basra, which is far from the battlefields of Iraq’s war against jihadists, but still suffers from violence due to other causes, including inter-tribal conflict.
Jabbar al-Saadi, the head of the province’s security committee, said that more than 5,000 members of the security forces were involved in the security plan for the match.
Like their supporters, Iraqi players were glad to be home.
“It is very important that we return to playing in front of our fans,” Ali Adnan told journalists.
“We hope that the Iraqi team’s official matches will return to our stadiums.”
Iraq already hosted one recent international match — albeit between two Iraqi teams — that was part of the Asian Football Confederation Cup.
“We have to invest well in the 90-day period specified by the international federation,” Ali Jabbar, the deputy head of the Iraqi Football Association told a news conference.
“We consider the match with Jordan today the first step in lifting the ban (completely).”