After decades of war, invasions and instability, Iraq hosts the eight-nation Gulf Cup starting on Friday for the first time since 1979. For the country’s football officials and government, success off the field will be a bigger prize than success on it.
The national teams, all from West Asia and split into two groups of four, will converge on the southern port city of Basra. If the 25th edition of the tournament progresses smoothly then it could encourage FIFA to allow World Cup qualifiers to return to Baghdad, which has not hosted a competitive international since before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion due to concerns over the security situation in the city.
In the past two decades, just two qualifiers have taken place in the country: against Jordan in Erbil in 2011 and Hong Kong in Basra eight years later. All other competitive games involving the national team have been played in countries such as Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Baghdad was scheduled to host a 2022 World Cup qualifier against United Arab Emirates on March 24 last year but after a missile attack on Erbil 11 days before the game was to be played, the venue was switched to Saudi Arabia.
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A successful Gulf Cup could bring about meaningful change.
“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.”
Iraq Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani stressed the importance of the event after a visit to Basra to review facilities in December when he called on organisers to present Iraq in the best possible light.
Iraqi Football Association official Haider Aufi wants Iraq to draw inspiration from Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in November and December. “Sports has become one of the most important activities in the world . . . of transmitting cultures and civilisations through hosting tournaments and competitions, and this is what we witnessed in Qatar’s organisation of the 2022 World Cup,” Aufi said.
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While Qatar may be the model as a host of football’s biggest tournament, Iraq wants to avoid its on-field example. Qatar lost all three games to become the first World Cup host to fail to collect a single point. Felix Sanchez, who became coach in 2017 and led the team to the 2019 Asian Cup title, left the post after his contract ended last week.
“The football family of Qatar will always be grateful for the success he has brought to Qatar football over the years,” Qatar Football Association president Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said. “Coach Felix will always have a special place with us and we hope he always thinks of Qatar as his home.”
While the QFA searches for a long-term replacement for the Spaniard, Portuguese coach Bruno Pinheiro is in charge temporarily and preparing for Group B games against defending champion Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Iraq is in Group A with Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.
Two stadiums will be used, including the new 30,000-seat Al-Minaa Olympic Stadium.
The top two teams from each group progress to the semifinals. The final will be played on January 19.