Arabian Gulf Cup: Putting Iraq back on the sporting map
It had been a long time coming, and over 60,000 fans at Basra International Stadium danced and sang while legendary Iraqi striker Younis Mahmoud stood and applauded high up in the arena.
In the semi-final of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup on Monday, Aymen Hussain had just put the team 2-1 up against Qatar.
There were plenty of nerves in the second half, but the hosts hung on for the win and a place in Thursday’s final against Oman.
The stadium erupted once more upon the final whistle and a first regional title since 1988 is very much on the cards as are celebrations that have not been seen for a long time.
"The last time the tournament was held in Iraq was way back in 1979. Since then, there hasn't been much international football in the country at all"
“We can now think about winning the title and the players are itching for it,” said Iraq’s Spanish coach Jesus Casas. The same can be said for the country.
The eight-team tournament that takes place roughly every two years is little noticed outside the region, but success is a big deal.
It was not without some political controversy, however. Iran, which insists that the waterway that gives the cup its name is the ‘Persian Gulf’, summoned the Iraqi ambassador to protest and is going to make similar complaints to the world governing body FIFA.
That aside, in footballing terms failure against rivals and neighbours can be costly for coaches and there has been plenty of that over the years for Iraq.
Their barren run in the competition stretches back to 1988, far too long for a country that has little problem in producing talented football players.
It all means that lifting the trophy on home soil would be a major cause for celebration in the country.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani has taken a personal interest in the tournament, inspecting facilities in the southern city before the big kick-off and sending a message of congratulations to the team after the win over Qatar.
More than a trophy on offer
There is a much bigger prize at stake, however. The last time the tournament was held in Iraq was way back in 1979. Since then, there hasn’t been much international football in the country at all due to the Iraq-Iran war, Gulf war, US-led invasion in 2003, and the ensuing instability and insecurity.
For such reasons, FIFA does not currently allow official games such as World Cup qualifiers to be played in the country. There have been only two since 2003, a game against Jordan in the northern city of Erbil in 2011 – during which there was a power cut – and then against Hong Kong down in Basra eight years later.
There has been nothing in Baghdad. FIFA initially gave the green light to a 2022 qualifier against the United Arab Emirates taking place in the capital last March but a missile attack on Erbil just days before resulted in a swift switch to Saudi Arabia.
"Winning the Gulf Cup is a great prize in itself but staging it successfully could be much more meaningful for Iraq"
That just heightened frustration for fans especially as domestic games have been going on all the time. Midfielder Ahmed Yasin said on social media, "Football is played all over the country with no issues whatsoever. This ban makes no sense. How much longer do we have to wait?"
Iraq has asked the world governing body on more than one occasion to lift the ban but there has been reluctance.
James Dorsey, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, understands the position for both Iraq and FIFA.
“It makes sense to be over-cautious. You don’t want a conflict on your hands,” he told The New Arab.
“There is always going to be tension between a country that feels it is being disadvantaged and even disenfranchised versus an assessment of the risk. At what point do you say ‘the risk is significantly reduced’?” he added.
“Politically, Iraq has been unstable with the storming of the parliament, it took a year to get the government together and there have been incidents in Kurdistan in the north but security has not been that bad, there have been incidents but there are incidents in other places.”
This is why the tournament currently taking place in Basra is so important.
While home fans have been making plenty of noise whenever their team plays, organisers would love nothing more than for everything to go quietly off the pitch.
“It is a step forward to retain Iraq’s normal position in the fields of sport, culture and society,” Basra Governor Asaad Al Eidani said. “It is a message to the whole world that we are capable.”
That message should be well understood according to Dorsey. “If all is well then it is going to have influence and will be something that FIFA can’t ignore,” he said, and it was noticeable that the governing body’s president Gianni Infantino attended the opening game of the tournament and was complimentary about the atmosphere and Iraq.
“If you can host international events of whatever kind, whether they are World Cup qualifiers or international conferences then you as a country are considered to be secure enough and capable enough and that is significant, especially after two decades,” said Dorsey.
"The timing could not be better. While the 2022 World Cup has just finished, qualification for 2026 is set to start in Asia later this year"
As well as sending a message that Iraq is safe and open for business, there are clear football benefits to playing at home.
Since the country made a first and, to date, only appearance at the World Cup in 1986, the team have had to play most of their qualifiers in third countries such as Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
This is a clear disadvantage when it comes to getting the necessary results. Other countries have full and intimidating stadiums waiting to greet visitors while their own players excel in familiar surroundings on and off the pitch.
Iraq has empty stadiums with players who also have to fly in from elsewhere. It is entirely possible that had the Lions of Mesopotamia been able to play at home then they would have returned to the global stage –after all, they were Asian champions in 2007 – before now.
The timing could not be better. While the 2022 World Cup has just finished, qualification for 2026 is set to start in Asia later this year.
With the next tournament expanding from 32 to 48 teams, the continent will see its quota move from 4.5 automatic places to 8.5. It means that Iraq has a great chance to qualify.
If the team can play at home, then possible becomes probable. Getting to the World Cup would give football in the country a huge boost on and off the pitch.
Financially it is worth tens of millions of dollars and gives the entire sport, as well as the country, a huge shot in the arm.
Winning the Gulf Cup is a great prize in itself but staging it successfully could be much more meaningful for Iraq.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden