Najaf (Iraq) (AFP) – Iraq hopes that hosting Gulf football friendlies, renovating its stadiums and outlawing weapons at matches will have persuaded FIFA to lift a ban on home competitive internationals, its sports minister said.
The country has not played full internationals on home turf for almost three decades, ever since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait that sparked an international embargo.
FIFA’s ban, covering all but local matches, stayed in place after the American-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
The ban was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during an Iraq-Jordan match in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil led world’s football’s governing body promptly to reinstate it.
Iraq is now allowed to host international friendlies at stadiums in Arbil, the southern port city of Basra and the shrine city of Karbala.
On February 28, Basra will host a friendly between Iraq and Saudi Arabia — the first Saudi national team to play on Iraqi soil in four decades.
“Politics is present in every domain, and Saudi Arabia has major political weight,” Sports and Youth Minister Abdulhussein Abttan told AFP in an interview at the international stadium of Najaf, south of Baghdad.
“The presence of the Saudi team in Iraq means a lot to us.”
Years of insecurity following the US-led invasion and the Islamic State group’s occupation of a swathes of northern and western Iraq turned hosting sports events into a major challenge.
But Iraq in December declared victory over the jihadists following a three-year battle, and FIFA finally relaxed the ban.
Now, Abttan wants the sport’s governing body to lift it entirely.
“I hope that this (Saudi) match will inspire other national teams to visit Iraq, which will help support our case for a total lifting of FIFA’s ban on matches in our stadiums,” Abttan said.
“We are also counting on the teams of Bahrain, Qatar and Iran, all of which also have political influence in sports.”
– Politics extends into football –
Next week’s friendly marks a warming of ties between Baghdad and Riyadh after decades of tension under Saddam as well as under Nuri al-Maliki, who was prime minister from 2006-2014.
Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi visited Riyadh in June and October 2016, and the two countries have since exchanged several trade delegations.
The detente is now extending into the realm of football.
But politics has also mixed with sport in the Gulf diplomatic crisis pitting a Saudi-led Arab bloc against Qatar, the host of the World Cup 2022.