On February 16 this year, Muhannad Cabo, 25, set off to see his favourite football team from Diwaniyah play an away match against a club from Budair. He carried candy for his fellow fans and roses to throw to the players. Despite his good intentions, he came back bloodied and badly beaten after getting caught in a crowd of rioting fans.
“Usually the fans of the two teams are given opposite sides of the stadium but this time the Budair fans managed to get onto our side,” Cabo recalled. Tensions started to escalate six minutes into the first half when fans began throwing rocks at security staff. Then a baton-wielding mob entered the stadium, Cabo said.
“Some of the players were beaten and their clothes were torn up. We only felt safe when the special military forces arrived,” Cabo recalled. “No one imagined that the sons of the city would beat each other in such a crazy manner.”
Member of Iraqi national football team: I thought the fan was coming to congratulate me. Instead he attacked me.
And such football hooliganism does not seem to be an isolated incident. Long a concern for smaller clubs, rioting fans also recently disrupted the matches of elite Iraqi league clubs like Nadi Al Quwa Al Jawiya (also known as the Air Force Sports Club), Samarra FC, Erbil FC and Naft Al Janoob, or the South Oil FC from Basra.
Iraqi midfielder Karrar Jassim plays for the national football team and for the Iraqi Premier League’s winners in 2015, Naft Al Wasat – also known as Midland Oil FC. But the popular player recently announced he was withdrawing from the Iraqi League after a fan attacked him with a baton.
“In the last two minutes of the match, my team was winning one to nil,” Jassim said. “One of the fans came into the stadium and was heading towards me. I thought he was coming to congratulate me for winning the game but instead he attacked me and hit my head.”
Jassim’s experience is not unusual either. Unlike in European matches, there is not much security for players and other national team members have also been assaulted at recent matches.
“Those doing security should be blamed even more than those doing the rioting,” Jassim says.
During an Iraqi Premier League qualifier match between Samarra FC and Dhuluiya FC, a member of the Dhuluiya club drove his car onto the pitch after one his team members was injured.
“A fight erupted and the photographer from the Samarra Club was slapped and prevented from filming,” Saddam Aziz, the head of Samarra FC, told NIQASH. “The fans started to beat one of the administrators of Samarra and the game was ended. The union refused to reorganize the match in a neutral venue.”
So what is causing this rise in football-related violence? Aziz attributes the rise in violence to poor organization by the Iraqi Football Association. “The union relies on the work of supervisors who lack experience,” he said. “Clubs choose their board members and some of these members know nothing about football. Additionally, the Association has failed to properly train supervisors to make them familiar with regulations and duties.”
Abdallah Majid Dazabi, who heads Erbil FC in northern Iraq, doesn’t think the riots are racially motivated. However, he also thinks that unrest fuelled by “political differences between Baghdad and the region” have made his team “lose more than one game”.
“Young people are using riots as an outlet for anger and depression that come as a result of just living in Iraq,” Bassam Raouf Hamid, a former national team captain, trainer and now a member of a special committee formed to look into the stadium riots, told NIQASH. “People’s desire to win by any means is leading to violence. It is ironic that the most popular teams are those that have more problems.”
Hamid Makhi, another member of the Iraqi Football Association, has his own theory. To raise funds for their struggling teams, the owners of Iraqi football clubs are soliciting public donations and giving fans a sense of control over the players. “Clubs are no longer capable of making decisions without the consent of their fans, who control their budgets,” he said.
Associations run by fans and stakeholders intimidate opposing teams before matches, especially if the games are home games, he notes. “There are even incidents where teams have intentionally lost their games just to protect themselves against attacks.”
Taleb al-Zuhairi, the deputy president of the fan club affiliated to Nadi Al Quwa Al Jawiya admits that fan clubs often use intimidation to influence the outcomes of matches. “When we tried to put an end to such practices, we were threatened,” he said, adding that security forces want to avoid stirring tribal trouble because it often leads them to having to pay blood money.
The lack of specially trained staff and security infrastructure leaves visitors of football stadiums exposed to mob violence, al-Zuhairi admits, but he also says that his club screens fans before they enter the stadium “in order to identify rioters and expel them before they become a threat”.
Meanwhile Ahmad al-Mousawi, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Youth and Sports, attributes the recent chaos to the lack of a special police force for sports stadiums. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently dissolved this specialized anti-riot unit as part of his effort to rein in any security departments overseen by the Ministry of Interior. “The force had excellent experience in the administration of stadium security,” al-Mousawi says. “Now there is no cooperation between the Interior Ministry and the sports federations.”
A further issue is that matches are often held at stadiums that are not controlled by the government or its agencies, al-Mousawi explained – this is unlike big stadiums in Basra and Erbil and elsewhere, which have been certified by the international football’s governing body, FIFA
But even Baghdad’s 45,000-seat Al Shaab Stadium is not riot-proof. The stadium’s director, Khaldoun al-Abad, points out that no security measures will be enough if coaches, club managers and journalists continue to issue provocative statements. These statements are “ticking time bombs” which incite riots and create an explosive, emotional atmosphere during games, al-Abad notes.
Administrators are trying to do something about the problem. The Youth and Sports Committee in Iraq’s Parliament has been busy drafting anti-riot legislation. According to Kurdish MP Majid Shankali, the draft legislation contains “severe penalties such as arrest, imprisonment and fines for violators, as well as criminal prosecution”.
“The committee also made recommendations about stadium organization, providing stadiums with dedicated security teams and how to better manage how audiences and teams enter and leave the stadium,” Shankali told NIQASH.
However until the law is passed, the Iraqi Football Association’s disciplinary committee remains powerless to prosecute rioters, explains Yahya Karim, who heads the Association’s legal committee. “The absence of deterrent penalties has also been a factor in the increase in riots,” Karim believes. “The committee had issued financial and administrative penalties against some clubs, players and administrators - but our stadiums are not well protected,” he concludes. “Wires around a stadium yard are not enough.”