Iraq's football team slides into Saudi-Iranian tensions

Iraq's football team slides into Saudi-Iranian tensions
The Iraqi football team has found itself thrust into the heart of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry after the governing football body threatened to boycott World Cup qualifying matches in Saudi Arabia.
3 min read
17 April, 2016
Iraq's football team is in the middle of a squabble between Saudi and Iran [Getty]
Political tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have spilled onto the football pitch in neighbouring Iraq, as one of the region's longest-running and complex rivalries threatens to tarnish the beautiful game.

The region's two power-houses - Iran and Saudi Arabia - have long been at loggerheads due to long-standing ideological and political tensions.

When Saudi Arabia and Iran's football teams were placed in the same qualifying group for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, it was inevitable that politics would affect the clash.

Now Iraq - whose government is allied to Tehran - has become embroiled in the rivalry. Due to unrest at home, Iraq is playing its home games during the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifications in neighbouring Iran.

Last week, the head of the Iraqi Football Association said the national team would not play an away game this month in Saudi Arabia if Riyadh refuses to play a later game in Iran. 

Iraq's demands have been met with abusive remarks from Saudi media.

"We will, whether you like it or not, play outside of Iran. This is pure insolence from the IFA head, Abdel Khaliq Masoud, and must have come from the Iranians," said Saudi football commentator Abdel Aziz al-Mirsail on Friday.

"This wretched man must know that we are an unyielding country. He is beneath talking about the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This is not just a sporting matter, it's political and affects the security of the country and the whole Gulf," Mirsail added.
      Saudi media have slammed the IFA's decision [YouTube]

The Iraqi football body has responded with a statement, demanding an apology from the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

"Due to the severe public abuse by several Saudi media figures towards the head of the IFA, which constitute an unjustified insult to the Iraqi people. We demand the SAFF condemn these journalists and give a formal apology," the statement read.

This is not the first time the football associations of Saudi Arabia and Iran have clashed over the venue for games between the two countries.

Earlier this month, Iran refused to accept Gulf state Oman as a "neutral" ground for games against Saudi clubs.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been tense for decades, but deteriorated sharply in early January when Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed by Riyadh.

Days later, and Iranian protesters responded by attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in another city.

The latest football spat is seen as a projection of this rivalry and has affected relations between the two governing football bodies.

The tensions have reached such heights that now Iraqi football fans have called on FIFA president Gianni Infantino to allow Iraq to play its games on home turf despite the instability at home.

"We Iraqis love football and live for the game. We are currently playing our games on land that is not our own and we are suffering," a Facebook group fan group told Infantino in an open letter. "We have three stadiums that could host the World Cup qualifiers."

Although most of the unrest in Iraq is situated in the north and west - where Kurdish and Iraqi government forces are fighting the Islamic State group - even football and sports' fans have fallen victim to the violence.

Last month, at least 41 people - many of them children - were killed and over 100 others injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd after a local football game in Baghdad.