Football beats politics for fans ahead of Iraq, Saudi clash

Basra (Iraq) (AFP) – With his social media campaign welcoming Saudi Arabia’s football team to Iraq — “Greens, you’re at home!” — Arkan Taqi has broken a taboo in his hometown Basra, close to the Iranian border.

On the eve of a friendly match between Iraq and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday that marks the return of international football to the city, Arkan and around a dozen supporters hope they have changed minds in Basra, an overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim city, as they await Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.

A 90-minute match could have long-lasting repercussions in other ways.

It is the first time football-mad Iraq, who almost made the cut for the 2018 World Cup themselves, have hosted an international match since 1990.

The country has not played full internationals on home turf ever since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait that sparked an international embargo. 

The ban, covering all but domestic matches, stayed in place after the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

With this friendly, Iraq aim to strengthen their case with world football governing body FIFA to lift the ban on them hosting competitive international matches.

By hosting a team which has qualified for this year’s World Cup in Russia, Iraq hope to instigate a diplomatic rapprochement with Riyadh and convince FIFA they are fit to host internationals.

– Return to ‘normalcy’ –

Outside the futuristic 60,000-seater Basra Stadium — a vast arena inspired by the national tree, the palm — security forces are already in place to try and ensure the match goes ahead without a hitch.

As Iraq returns to the international scene following the war with the Islamic State, which has now been forced out of all major cities in the country, Baghdad is seeking to enhance this return to “normalcy” in other areas.

Football is one of the first of those areas, and convincing FIFA is the perfect place to start to reach millions of fans around the world.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has been invited to the event, though it is unclear yet if he will attend.

– ‘This is a dream’ –

“There are still hostile feelings between Iraqis and Saudis, but they are shrinking more and more,” says Arkan, 26.

While Saudi supported Iraq in its eight-year long war with Iran from 1980, it was on the frontline against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and was part of the international coalition that supported an embargo against Baghdad.

No Saudi flags fly in the streets around the stadium in the southern city of Basra, which has some two million inhabitants, as old rivalries persist.

But the authorities have said they will hand out hundreds of Saudi green flags in the run-up to kick-off.

Online, the match has already begun with millions of Iraqis and Saudis interacting thanks to Arkan and his friends, who created a hash-tag to welcome thir visitors.

Throughout Iraq, travel agencies have also organised trips to Basra.

“For us, seeing Arab teams play in Basra was a dream,” Ammar Kitan, 56, who works for the city council in Basra, told AFP.

And this dream “is not only important for Basra but for all Iraq”, said Ahmed Massoud, a 25-year-old student, because “this match against a team that goes to the World Cup will help lift the (FIFA) ban and prove that the city is safe”.

On the pitch, Iraqi defender Ali Faez said the significance of the match is also felt by the players.

“The match with Saudi Arabia is of great importance on more than one level: to lift the ban on our stadiums, but also for us, as a team, to improve our image in the world rankings,” said the 24-year-old international.

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