First in a series on football fandom in troubled regions originally published in The National
by Ahmed Rizvi
The video is a bit sketchy, probably shot with a mobile phone from high up in the stands of the stadium in Tikrit, or one of the surrounding buildings. On the dusty pitch below, the two teams, one in green and the other in yellow, are battling it out. In the background there is an ornate mosque.
Suddenly, there is a big explosion behind the goal, followed by the crackle of gunfire. Startled, the players scamper towards safety and, fortunately, none of them has been injured. One of the fans watching the game from behind the goals was not so fortunate. As the shaky camera recovers to focus on the scene of the blast, it shows a man carrying the injured fan towards a white pick-up nearby.
Thankfully, there was no repeat of the gory scenes that took place at a football match between two local teams in the Turkmen town of Tal Afar in 2010. That day about 25 fans were killed and more than 100 injured when a suicide bomber detonated his car filled with explosives.
Football in Iraq has suffered for decades: first at the hands of the sadistic Uday Hussein, son of the country’s long-time president Saddam Hussein, who was chairman of the Iraq Football Association; then during the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation; followed by sectarian strife and now ISIL. The show goes on, though, despite the hundreds of football fans who have been killed over the past dozen years.
One incident that will live long in the memory is of a suicide bomber who blew himself up at an ice-cream parlour in the Mansour district of Baghdad, killing 30 fans who were celebrating the national team’s win over South Korea in the semi-final of the 2007 Asian Cup. The mother of a 12-year-old boy killed in those blasts refused to shed tears. “I present my son as a sacrifice for the national team,” she said. Those attacks led to a new anthem being sung by fans at matches even to this day: “With our blood and soul, we will sacrifice for Iraq.”
This year in Mosul, ISIL rounded up 13 teenage boys, who had defied their orders and dared to watch Iraq’s match against Jordan at the Asian Cup on TV, and executed them publicly. Those bullets were, if you believe Iraqi journalist Maher Hameed, wasted, as no threats of killings have been able to keep Iraqis away from football.
“The Iraqis love their football more than their food,” Hameed said. “No one, no event, can stop football matches in Iraq.” Hameed does not exaggerate. Football matches and fans have been deliberately targeted over the past dozen years.
Improvised explosive devices, have been deliberately planted on football pitches (Al Abara, 2013) and mortars have been fired into stadiums while matches are in progress, killing dozens. Children still continue to play football across the country, on any patch of land they can find — dirt, concrete or grass — despite the constant danger. Last March, 45,000 fans had packed Baghdad’s Al Shaab Stadium to watch Iraq’s version of “el clasico” between Al Zawraa and Al Quwa Al Jawiya. The city was under siege in the two days leading up to that match, with more than 30 dead in a series of bombings.
“In the middle of these explosions, we live our lives,” Ghazwan, one of the 65,000 fans who had packed the Al Shaab stadium for the friendly against Liberia two years ago, said as he walked out following his team’s 1-0 loss. That game was interrupted by two suicide attacks, a short distance from the stadium.
“We are not afraid of these explosions,” he said. “We are afraid of this terrible team.”
Another fan, walking nearby, screamed: “Explosions hit us on the roads, and our team loses on the field! Is there anything worse than this?” That loss to Liberia was an aberration. The Iraq team have generally not disappointed their fans, marching from one success to another, despite the obvious challenges. In 2004, they finished fourth at the Olympic Games and then, defying all odds, battled their way to the 2007 Asian Cup title. In 2013, Iraq’s Under 20 team reached the last four at the Youth World Cup in Turkey; that same year Iraq won the Asian Under 22 Championships in Oman.
“The pool of talent in Iraq is still flourishing because, despite the lack of infrastructure, the base of Iraqi football continues to be intact,” said Hassanin Mubarak, a respected Iraqi football writer.
“That is shaabiya football, and ishbal and nasheen football level, at clubs around the country. Shaabiya football, or local neighbourhood football, is played around the country.”
Hugely popular, shaabiya football has been the sport’s lifeline over the past decade in the absence of security, finance and decaying infrastructure. Even Al Shaab, Baghdad’s only internationally recognised stadium, had become a base for the occupying forces.
“This period was very tough for us players, especially with the postponement of the league and the failure of our clubs in paying our wages and salaries, and that’s just from a financial point,” said Ghaith Abdul Ghani, a midfielder who plays for Baghdad club Al Zawraa, in an article on Goal Singapore website last year.
“From a security perspective, my team struggled immensely. I remember two incidents that affected the side: one, where one of my teammates, Manar Muthafar, lost his life as a result of a random gun shot during a training session, and the other, during another training session, when three mortar shells fell on the pitch wounding many players. A shrapnel from one of the shells remains stuck in my leg till this day.”
Many football players in Iraq have similar tales to share. Hakeem Shaker, the former national team coach, spoke about the “brutal” security situation affecting “the psychological well-being of our players”, and “the terrifying sounds of explosions, forced displacement and gunfire” that was directly affecting “the creation of quality players”.
Hameed said things are changing. The Iraq Football Association and Fifa have been working together on three Goal Projects, which include supplying artificial pitches and providing coaching and education courses to improve domestic competitions and officiating standards. In October, 2013, the US$715 million (Dh2.6 billion) Basra Sports City opened its doors, with its 65,000-seat stadium the centrepiece. The Iraqi FA has plans to build new stadiums, including a 30,000-seater at Al Anbar, at a cost of $100m. The government has also allocated the Kurdistan region $100m “to improve sports infrastructure and to renovate stadiums and sports halls”.
“I can say categorically that the Iraqi league is getting better,” Hameed said, and his optimism is not misplaced.
Despite all the challenges, the league never really stopped. The season has been cut short twice, in 2003/04 and 2013/14, because of security concerns and, occasionally, matches have been cancelled for the same reasons. But the FA, despite all the criticism, has done well to keep the league going. To tackle the issue of security and minimise travel, teams are divided into groups on a regional basis and then the leaders at the end of each group phase play for overall honours.
“I think this way is the best given the security situation,” Hameed said. “At least the players and fans can avoid travelling long distances between cities. As we say, the show must go on.”
Indeed it must.
IRAQ FOOTBALL HIGHLIGHTS
- The Iraq Football Association was founded in 1948 and has been a member of Fifa since 1950 and the Asian Football Confederation since 1970.
- Iraq played their first international match in 1957 against Morocco in Lebanon. The game finished 3-3.
- Iraq won their first and only Asian Cup title in 2007, beating South Korea in the semi-finals and Saudi Arabia in the final.
- The Iraq national team have also won a gold medal at the Asian Games (1982), three Gulf Cups (1979, 1984, 1988) and a West Asia Championship (2002).
- In 1986, Iraq made their only World Cup finals appearance but returned home from Mexico without a point, losing to the hosts 2-1, Paraguay 1-0 and Belgium 2-1.
- Iraq have twice been awarded the AFC National Team of the Year, in 2003 and 2007 – the only team from West Asia to win this award.
- Between 1992 and 1996, Iraq scored in 27 consecutive matches, an Asian record.