IRAQ: Ten Years on, dust settles, hope returns
It has been a decade since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s barbaric regime that had ruled the land between the two rivers for more than thirty years. The Iraq of today has little sign of the millions of portraits, posters, and statues of the man they called the Butcher of Baghdad. The man who had governed the country with an iron fist.
While the divided politicians in post-Saddam Iraq have been unable to improve the basic facilities in the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis or build a stable and functioning government, it has been football that has managed to unite the country. In the summer of 2007 at the height of the bitter infighting, when the capital Baghdad became a battleground for political groups jostling for power, one Iraqi quipped that the capital resembled the segregated warring factions in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
It was at this very moment, while Baghdad was being overrun by death squads and lashed by a daily assault of suicide bombings that the Asood Al-Rafidain, the group of players assembled from the ashes of the 2003 war, created history when they won Asian Cup for the first time in the nation’s history.
Saddam’s eldest son Uday had ruled the Iraq Football Association with the same ruthlessness as his despotic father, flogging and imprisoning players for failing to score goals and win matches. In the mid-Eighties, he headed his own club, Al-Rasheed and whenever players of the club reported back to training with the national side, fans would easily recognise the players that represented Uday’s club by their shaven heads, a ritual punishment handed out on the orders of their president after a defeat.
Those terrible days are long gone but today the footballers in Iraq face other new problems, principally being the ineptness of their corrupt FA officials and the lack of a professional set-up from the top people running the game, from the FA to the constant hindrance of the Ministry of Youth & Sports. In 2008, their office decided that it would be best to dissolve the FA but once they did, it faced the wrath of FIFA president Sepp Blatter who subsequently suspended Iraq from international football. They made a quick U-turn weeks later but the same situation occurred in 2009 and Iraq was banned for a second time.
Things have not managed to get any better and the current administration of the Iraq Football Association is awaiting a ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on the validity of the 2011 FA elections. The appellants that include FA presidential candidate Falah Hassan, and a host of Iraqi clubs hope to declare the FA electoral process held in 2011 void, over infringements made by members of the FA in the run up and during the elections.
They allege that the current administration of Najih Humoud had manipulated the local media and FIFA, ousting the former FA president Hussein Saeed as a nominee and illegally changing the formation of the FA general assembly and FA statutes. They also claim that the FA had manipulated the general assembly and FIFA to gain an unfair advantage for Najih Humoud’s group to win the elections.
The appellants mention that on April 23 2011 at a congress meeting in which the FA general assembly increased the number of its members from 63 to 72, in violation of art. 24 of the Iraq FA statutes. The FA allowed non-members of Congress to represent clubs as follows: Fawzi Haidar Mohammed, an equipment manager at the FA represented Pires, Sadiq Abdul-Hussein, a competitions department employee at FA, represented Zakho, Hashim Al-Badri, a journalist at Al-Malaab, represented Peshmerga, while a driver at the FA known only as Majid, represented Al-Naft. Presidential candidate Hussein Saeed declared that he stood down as FA president but did not withdraw his nomination for the FA presidency. He claimed that the FA under Najih Humoud, who had taken over in his absence, had rescheduled the elections for June 18 when he was in Mexico fulfilling his duty as a member of FIFA’s organising committee at the U17 World Cup so he was unable to attend the elections in Baghdad.
A week before the elections, Najih Humoud had also allegedly met with 36 members of the FA at his home in Kufa to gain their votes against Falah Hassan, dubbed ‘the South and Middle of the Euphrates River Block’. Najih Humoud beat Falah Hassan in the 2011 elections and a ruling on its validity is expected in late March.
But there is some hope, the level of football in the domestic league is progressively improving and for a second season, after the tide of bombings that had slowed reconstruction after the 2003 War had subsided and security had been restored to most to the country, the championship is now played in a nation-wide league format. The 2002-2003 season, the last before the outbreak of war had been one of the best seasons for many a year, with Al-Talaba, Al-Shurta, Al-Zawraa, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and Al-Najaf vying for the league title.
The supremacy of the Baghdad clubs had witnessed capital based clubs win 25 league titles out of a total of 27 from the inception of the Iraqi league in 1974. However for the past decade the dominance of the two northern clubs of Arbil and Duhok has seen them win five league titles out of eight played after the fall of the previous regime. The clubs situated in the safe and prosperous Kurdish region, have wealthy backers that have allowed them to recruit the best players in the country.
This season Baghdad’s sleeping giants Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force) and Al-Shurta (Police), have taken up the challenge to catch the northern clubs and with a host of new signings and a sparkling start to the season, they are considered real challengers to Arbil and Duhok for the league.
The face of the domestic game is witnessing a new foreign revolution. In the days of Saddam, foreign players were banned from playing in the Iraqi league but since 2009 when the administration of Arbil made a landmark decision to sign the Iraqi league’s first foreign professional, Guinean striker Ismaël Bangoura, the Iraqi league now has a large foreign contingent.
The first tide of foreigner that moved to the Iraqi league preferred the safety surroundings of the Kurdish north but today foreign players are now donning the colours of Iraqi clubs from Zakho in the north to Al-Minaa and Naft Al-Janoub in the south.
They include two footballers that were playing in the English and Scottish Premier League only a few seasons ago, former Middlesborough and Egypt midfielder Mohamed Shawky and French-born Ivorian forward Claude Gnakpa previously of Luton Town, Dundee Utd and Inverness CT, who are now on the books of Baghdad club Al-Naft and Al-Minaa in Basra.
With the unrest in Egypt and Syria that have suspended their domestic competitions, the Iraqi league has seen a large influx of players from those Arab countries, with twenty-four Syrian and twelve Egyptian players currently plying their trade in Iraq.
There are a total of 62 ajanab or foreigners in the league including six players in the lower divisions. The list includes seven players from Cameroon, four from Nigeria, one Brazilian, a Bosnian and even one from Equatorial Guinea.
Lucrative short-term contract offers from Iraqi clubs have seen the likes of former Wigan and Egypt striker Amro Zaki and Burkina Faso defender Paul Koulibaly, who played for his country in the African Cup of Nations, consider moving to Iraq.
World Cup dream
The Asood Al-Rafidain or the Lions of Mesopotamia, a name that the passionate Iraqi fans have bestowed on their beloved national side, have a good chance of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
However as in 1986 when Iraq last qualified for the World Cup, the team will be forced to play all their ‘home’ matches in Dubai with the Iraq FA having been unsuccessful in their bid to overturn FIFA’s ban on hosting international matches in the country. Iraqis hope that they will be able to host home internationals in the near future with the construction of the new 65,000 capacity Basra Sports City Stadium at a cost of $550m US. The venue that will host the 22nd Gulf Cup that will be held in 2015.
Iraq have recently appointed Serbian Vladimir Petrović nicknamed Pižon to replace the out-going Brazilian Zico after he had handed in his resignation over a dispute over unpaid wages. The new boss put pen to a one-year contract worth $800,000 US with an additional bonus of $200,000 if he manages to guide the Lions to Rio. He will have his work cut because with the Iraqi team nothing runs smoothly.
For Iraqis, the dust from the 2003 war has settled and people can finally begin to hope for a better future.