Iraq hosted a football match against Saudi Arabia for the first time in nearly four decades. The friendly match between the two national teams took place in the southern city of Basra with an attendance of 65,000 spectators.
Although Iraq's 4-1 victory over Saudi Arabia was cause for celebration, Iraqi football officials are aiming for a different kind of win. Iraq has been banned by FIFA, the international football governing body, from hosting international competitive matches since the invasion of neighbouring Kuwait in 1990 that led to an international embargo. In August 1990, Iraq entered Kuwait and occupied it for seven months before a United Nations coalition led by the United States intervened to expel Iraqi forces in what became known as the First Gulf War.
While FIFA has recently allowed Iraq to host friendly matches, it still banned it from playing its home matches for the 2018 World Cup qualification stages within the country.
Iraqi officials are hoping that hosting friendlies, renovating stadiums, and outlawing weapons will demonstrate that Iraq has the infrastructure and is safe enough to lift the ban on hosting competitive matches. They invited FIFA chief Gianni Infantino to witness for himself, but he did not attend. They continue to be hopeful ahead of FIFA's decision whether or not to lift the ban later in March 2018.
“I hope that this match will inspire other national teams to visit Iraq, which will help support our case for a total lifting of FIFA's ban on matches in our stadums,” Abdulhussein Abttan, sports and youth minister, told news agency AFP in an interview.
Abttan is also counting on the influence of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to make the case for lifting the ban. “Politics is present in every domain and Saudi Arabia has major political weight. We are also counting on the teams of Bahrain, Qatar, and Iran, all of which also have political influence in sports.”
Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, president of the Qatar Football Association, has publicly expressed his support to lift the ban.
In recent years, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have engaged in a historic rapprochement after decades of tense relations.
The two countries reestablished ties in 2016 when the Saudi embassy reopened in Baghdad and have taken important steps to continue pressing forward. Saudi Arabia plans to open consulates in Basra and Najaf and reopened the Arar border crossing to promote trade. In an effort to help Iraq rebuild after years of a devastating war, Saudi Arabia has also offered US $1 billion through its Saudi Development Fund.
While political and economic diplomacy serve to mend ties, it is football diplomacy that is bringing the two nations together on a personal level. Football-starved Iraqis appreciated the Saudi national team making the trip to Basra so that they could watch an international-level match in person and simultaneously bolster their bid to lift the ban.
Iraq has not faced Saudi Arabia on home soil since 1979, a year before the start of the devastating Iran-Iraq war, making it a remarkable event for Iraqi football fans. Prior to the match, Arkan Taqi, a resident of Basra, started a social media campaign under the hashtag دارك_يالاخضر#, which translates to “Greens, you're at home,” ensuring a warm and welcoming reception for the Saudis.
— Zaid Benjamin (@zaidbenjamin) March 1, 2018
An Iraqi child draws the Iraqi flag on his face with the words “Greens, you're at home” from the social media campaign welcoming the Saudi national team. Photo by Abdulrahman Meshbib from Al Riyadiya.
— هاله الموصلية #Iraq🇮🇶🇮🇶🇮🇶🇮🇶🇮🇶🇮🇶 (@IRAQPICS1) February 28, 2018
Iraqis raise the Saudi and Iraqi flags with love unseen in 30 years.
An Iraqi carries a sign reading “We'll remain brothers forever.”
— احمد الياسري (@yaseri92) March 1, 2018
#Greens, you're at home
Iraq's hospitality did not go unnoticed by Saudis as they shared their gratitude.
شكراً على حفاوة الترحيب بالمنتخب السعودي وهذا غير مستغرب على الشعب العراقي الكبير 🇮🇶❤
— 🇸🇦 ittihad 💛 (@ittihad_kksa) February 27, 2018
Thank you for warmly welcoming the Saudi national team, this is not surprising coming from the great Iraqi people.
— عبدالله محسن القرني (@Abdullh_m7sn) February 27, 2018
Curse the corrupt media that paints Iraq in a bad light. The tickets were sold out and our team was warmly welcomed. Thank you and may God protect Iraq and its people.