Diwaniyah (Iraq) (AFP) – With Iraqi government coffers running perilously low, state-sponsored football clubs are exploring private investments for the first time — and Diwaniyah F.C. is leading the way.

Hussein al-Ankoushi, a 33-year-old lawyer and businessman, returned to his southern hometown of Diwaniyah in 2019 to build up its local club after years in Europe and the US. 

As the club’s new administrative head, he is pushing a policy seen as radical in Iraq: private investment to plug the state’s shrinking funding.

“Football is one of the best investments in the world,” Ankoushi told AFP in an interview.

“When we think of Spain, Germany or England, we think of their football teams — all owned by businessmen.

“We want to develop our infrastructure so we can benefit from such financial revenues too,” he said. 

The smartly-dressed businessman spoke from Diwaniyah’s dilapidated stadium, which has no floodlights and seating only on one side.

“How can you play real football in these poor conditions?” asked Ankoushi, who said he would prioritise renovating the stadium, buying new strips for players and provide buses to take players to away games.

To do this, he has rolled out a money-making plan modelled on foreign clubs: more televised marketing, private sponsorships, and revenue from player transfers.

The plan will be kicked off by a $5 million investment from his own fortune, earned through his family-owned holding company and more than two dozen petrol stations he owns across his native Iraq.

– ‘Something different’ –

Ankoushi hopes his strategy will allow the Diwaniyah club to bypass the glacially slow and profoundly corrupt bureaucracy of Iraq’s government.

“Our fans will see something different,” Ankoushi pledged. “Instead of standing outside the offices of government officials and begging them for money, we’ll be supporting ourselves.” 

Iraq’s football highpoint was in 2007, when its national team won the Asian Cup in an unpredictable upset despite the sectarian warfare ripping apart many of its cities. 

But it also has 20 club teams, of which 14 are owned by ministries or other government bodies, and usually have state-funded budgets of up to $1.7 million each.

The remaining six are owned by cities, and receive a yearly stipend of just $9,000 from the youth ministry.

They have used ticket sales and meagre profits from player transfers to cover the rest of their expenses.

But this year, Iraq is raking in record-low state revenues due to the simultaneous shocks of low oil prices, OPEC production restrictions and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

To save money, the government has cut all non-operational expenses — including allocations to sports teams.

“When I came back last year, there wasn’t a single dollar in the Diwaniyah Club’s accounts,” Ankoushi told AFP.

– From clubs to companies –

Diwaniyay has had a modest track record since it was founded in 1963. It has never won an Iraqi title or competed abroad, although it has ardent fans at home. 

“This is a city that breathes football,” said Ankoushi.

To boost its profile, he is bringing in five foreign players — more than any other club in Iraq. 

Among them are 26-year-old Iraqi-American midfielder Romario Georgis, Belgian striker Nathan Kabasele and Brazilian defender Wesley Pererra, both 25. 

But the plan is already hitting some snags, with foreign players unable to get visas due to Covid-19 travel bans.

And while Iraq’s coronavirus crisis cell has allowed for sports events to resume on September 12, six months after they were banned, spectators are not allowed.  

Still, the pivot towards the private sector is backed by new Diwaniyah coach Hazem Saleh and even sports minister Adnan Dirjal, himself a former football star.

Dirjal has met with Ankoushi and Iraq’s private banks to explore how to plug the budget gap.

“We’re looking to move sports from the public sector, or the government, to the private sector. We want to turn clubs into companies,” the minister said this month.

Muladh al-Amin, a researcher and sports analyst, told AFP that Ankoushi had stumbled upon an unmined opportunity. 

“In Iraq, you’ve already got a fan base that loves sports and football in particular. You’ve got championships, many other relevant occasions and plenty of clubs,” Amin said.

“It’s important for businessmen to invest in Iraq’s football clubs because they’re able to build stadiums and improve facilities, and this, in turn, will pump up the fans.”