Sport & Culture

A Red Card For Iraqi Football?

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Sport & Culture

A Red Card For Iraqi Football?

FIFA has declared that the country is not safe to host official international games.

There were 100,000 fans in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, jumping up and down and generally providing an intensity that helped the Iran national team pick up a vital 1-0 win over South Korea in qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

Not that far away, Iraq was playing a home game against Australia, another crucial match. Iraq needed the win but ended up losing 2-1 to the Socceroos.

The stadium was more than half empty. It makes a difference. A month earlier, Australia had lost to Jordan in front of a lively audience.

You can’t blame Iraqi fans, they are as passionate about the world game as most but the problem is that FIFA, the world governing body, has decreed that the country is not safe to host official international games. Fans in Baghdad or Basra are not going to be treated to any high-profile clashes for some time to come.

A qualifier was held in September 2011 in the northern city of Arbil deemed far away enough from the capital to be safe.

Unfortunately it was a chaotic affair against Jordan. In the second half there was a power cut, there were reports that the stadium was overcrowded and Iraq ended up losing to the men from Amman, coached by Adnan Hamad, regarded as the best coach that Iraq has produced.

Later that month, FIFA told Iraq to choose neutral venues for subsequent games.

Iraq Football Association (IFA) president Najih Hmoud protested.

“We will respect the FIFA decision and we will implement it. But I think it was not appropriate because it was based on incorrect information,” Hmoud told Reuters.

“Arbil is a safe city. FIFA could have sent a fact-finding delegation. They could have asked the attaches of foreign embassies in Arbil,” Hmoud said. “I don’t believe the circumstances that the report included … are enough to transfer matches to another venue.”

Despite the disadvantage, Iraq progressed to the final round of qualification but in April this year, went to Zurich to meet with FIFA to petition for the ban to be reversed.

Vice president of the IFA, Abdel Khaleq Massoud, said: "We are seeking to convince FIFA to lift the ban on our national team playing in our stadium, and will present Fifa officials with (evidence that) will prove we are able to host games … according to the rules of FIFA."

After the meeting, FIFA president Sepp Blatter raised the hopes of the Iraqi people by tweeting his memories about the 2007 Asian Cup triumph over Indonesia.

"I saw the joy and hope it brought to the Iraqi people, showing once more the impact football can have on society,'' Blatter said.

"Despite the challenges faced by the country, the ball has kept rolling in Iraq, where the league has continued to be played.''

In the end however, FIFA decided against overturning the ban meaning that Iraqi fans who want to see their national team in action struggle to do so, with expenses and visas deterring most.

As things stand, Iraq is unlikely to qualify automatically for Brazil 2014 after the Australian-inflicted defeat but nobody will ever know how differently it could have turned out.