It will be more than just a game. At the end of February, the international stadium in Basra will host a football game between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It is the first time the two countries have played one another in football for almost four decades.
It will be a historical event because at the moment Iraq is seeing a new level of diplomatic rapprochement between itself and Saudi Arabia after years of a long, cold relationship. It is also historic in other ways as FIFA, the international governing body for football, decided that friendly matches between international sides could once again take place in the country, where football and the national team has been one of the only things to unite all Iraqis. Previously FIFA had deemed Iraq too dangerous to hold matches but after the recent decision, locals hoped the ban could be lifted completely – it is a sign of hope and possible better, more peaceful times to come.
This means that international and Asian associations no longer have any excuse to ban Iraq or Iraqi teams.
To prepare for the Iraq-Saudi game, some Basra locals launched a campaign on social media called “Greens, it’s your homeland”, green being the Iraqi team’s colour. The campaign has already had 4 million interactions.
“This event is more than a football game, especially because relations between the two countries are now going in a new direction,” says Akan Taqi, the spokesperson for the campaign. “Local people have an important role to play. That’s why we started on the streets of Basra to try and educate people and to create the appropriate atmosphere to welcome the Saudi team.”
Taqi says that Saudi football fans raised the Iraqi flag in the match between the two nations that took place in their country. Now, according to him, Iraqi fans should pay back the favour.
“Preparations for the match are continuing,” says Mushtaq al-Shammari, a sports organizer with the Basra authorities. “A joint committee was formed by the municipal authorities to start preparations – such as checking that the stadium was ready to hold not just international games but possibly world championships too.”
Al-Shammari was confident about his city’s ability to hold the match successfully, saying that there were many hotels and other facilities that visitors could use. He also pointed out that this would be the fourth big game that has been held in Iraq recently without any major issues. Previously there were matches played with Jordan, Kenya, and a team of international all-stars at the Basra stadium, which has a 65,000 capacity. Being able to do this was one of the conditions for the lifting of the security ban.
“This means that international and Asian associations no longer have any excuse to ban Iraq or Iraqi teams,” the sports administrator told NIQASH.
FIFA has imposed several bans on Iraq, in 1985, 1990, 2003, 2009 and 2013, mostly because of fears about security and about poor organization, health and safety. Recently the ban was partially lifted with matches taking place in some of most trouble-free spots around the country, in stadiums in Basra, Karbala and Erbil.
“The match will be truly special game that will dazzle the world,” a statement from the country's minister of youth and sports, Abdul-Hussein Abtan, said. And he also called upon municipal authorities in Basra to pay attention to the neighbourhoods surrounding Basra’s distinctive stadium, designed to look like the trunk of a palm tree, and Basra’s Sports City complex. There are concerns about infrastructure and shanty towns around the facilities, which lie on the outskirts of the southern city.
Some locals have their concerns as to whether Basra will be ready for the February 28 match. Considering how many spectators are expected to attend and the potential levels of media interest – the Saudi team is one of the top teams in the region now – preparations have been very modest,” suggests local sports journalist Salah Thabet. “The match has a lot of national and international significance. And even FIFA president Gianni Infantino is expected to attend.”
As for local football fans themselves, they have no doubt about the event. “Sports games can end the negative feelings that politics create, and it can promote better relationships between our two countries,” says Basra resident and football fan, Omar Adnan. “We saw this in the way that the Kuwaitis welcomed Iraqis during recent games and the way our people welcomed the team from Jordan.”