Soccer show in strife-torn Basra brings joy


Iraq to host Gulf Cup Image: IraqiGovt (Twitter)

The Gulf Cup began with fanfare on January 6th in Iraq’s Southern City of Basra, sparking hopes of a bright future for the country’s embattled football prospects. The soccer show will continue till January 19th.

‘The National’ stated that for Iraqis, hosting the biennial event will turn a new page in the troubled history of their country, boost relations with Gulf neighbors and represent a crucial move towards full national recovery.

The Arabian Gulf Cup, often referred to simply as the Gulf Cup, is a biennial football competition governed by the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation for its eight member-nations. The history of the competition has also seen it held every three to four years due to political or organizational problems.

The 25th Arabian Gulf Cup, known as the Khaleeji Zain 25 for sponsorship reasons, is the 25th edition of the biennial football competition for the eight members of the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation. The tournament is currently underway in Iraq for the first time since 1979, in the Host City of Basra. It started on January 6th, 2023, and will conclude on January 19th, 2023.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, formally kicked off the tournament, hailing it as a “historic moment” which demonstrates “brotherhood among the Arab brothers in the Gulf”.

Added Al Sudani, “Dear sport fans, thanks for your presence. On your behalf and in the name of Iraq, we welcome the brothers, the visitors, the teams, and the fans in the land of Iraq, the land of Mesopotamia and Basra. We wish all teams’ success and enjoyment to the fans.”

Al Sudani was joined by the FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Iraq’s Speaker of Parliament Muhammad Al Halbousi and the heads of the Gulf football federations.

As the sun set over the port City, the mood in and around the Basra International Stadium was festive and electric with anticipation.

The 65,227-capacity Basra International Stadium is a sports complex in Basra, Southern Iraq. Its construction started on January 1st, 2009 and was completed on October 12th, 2013. The Sports City was funded by the Government of Iraq with a budget of $550 million. It contains a main stadium with a capacity to hold 65,000 people, a secondary stadium with a capacity of 10,000, four five star hotels, and other sports-related facilities.

By the afternoon of January 6th, more than 10,000 foreign fans had arrived in the City, located a short distance from Iraq’s borders with Kuwait and Iran, an official from Basra’s provincial Government said.

Thousands of people gathered at the stadium, known as the Trunk of the Palm, its design inspired by the Southern City’s palm trees. It was filled to its 65,000-person capacity with more soaking up the atmosphere outside.

Some fans pushed the guards back at one gate, breaking into the stadium perimeter, but no large disruption was caused.

As the ceremony began, with Iraqi poet Hazim Jabir, Iraqi actor Enas Talib, Iraqi actor Jawad Al Shakarchi, and Iraqi singer Hussam Al Rassam took to the field, dressed in elaborate costumes in a performance that told the story of the City’s rich history and culture.

Once the ceremony wrapped up, the tone in the stadium shifted from excitement to intense focus as Iraq and Oman faced off in the first game of the tournament with the match ending in a draw.

Travel to the stadium before the ceremony and opening matches snarled up traffic in the City. Others walked to the stadium, waving the Iraqi flag or wrapping it around their shoulders. Songs welcoming the participating teams blared from cars.

Those who couldn’t secure tickets packed the public square to see the opening ceremony on a big screen.

Ali Ibrahim said as he joined hundreds of fans in the City’s Tayaran Square, “Thank God, the opening ceremony was very beautiful and well organized. I didn’t expect that, to be honest.”

Ibrahim, 23, and his cousin were draped in the Iraqi flag.

He added, “We are very proud of our Basra, which has become an international City now.”

Stated Dhirgham Amir, “It is really amazing to see the tournament eventually kicked off after waiting so many years.”

Amir, 20, came with his brother and sister to the Al Tayaran Square.

“This will definitely change how Iraq looks like to the whole world as a dangerous place ravaged with terrorism,” he said, putting his nine-year-old sister on his shoulders.

He added, “A bright future mainly in sport is waiting Iraq.”

The biennial Arabian Gulf Cup first took place in 1970. The last time it was held in Iraq was in 1979, when the hosts were crowned champions. Iraq also won in 1984 and 1988.

The event features teams from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and UAE – as well as Iraq and Yemen.

The most recent event was held in 2019 in Qatar and was won by Bahrain.

A Bright Future

Basra Governor Asaad Al Eidani said before the start of the tournament, “It is a step forward to retain Iraq’s normal position in the fields of sport, culture and society. It is a message to the whole world that we are capable.”

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq echoed those sentiments.

The agency wrote on Twitter, “By hosting the Cup, Iraq showcases the unifying power of sports and its ability to harbor peaceful and respectful competition. We wish Iraq and its people a successful tournament.”

The eight teams playing in the tournament are divided into two groups.

Group A consists of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen, while Group B features the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar.

The winners and runners-up of each group proceed to the semi-finals on January 16th – where the winners of Group A play the runners-up of Group B, and the Group B winners take on the runners-up from Group A.

On January 19th, the winners of the semi-finals meet in the Gulf Cup final.

Hope Floats

‘The National’ further stated that Basra Corniche was abuzz with Iraqis enjoying evenings lit up by fireworks and traditional music, just days before football’s Arabian Gulf Cup came to town.

Fans sailed in wooden boats on the Shatt Al Arab waterway, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on which the Southern port of Basra stands. Flags of the Gulf States decorated the vessels, from which songs welcoming teams blared.

The Gulf Cup returned to Iraq on January 6th, for the first time since 1979.

In the four decades or so that followed, the country has endured war and diplomatic isolation, then political and security instability after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the former President of Iraq.

For Iraqis, hosting the biennial event – first held in Bahrain in 1970 -will turn a new page in the troubled history of their country, boost relations with their Gulf neighbors and represent a crucial move towards recovery.

Mustafa Mohammed, 30, exulted, “It is an indescribable feeling, we are so thrilled to have the tournament here in Basra and to host our dear brothers from the Gulf States after all these years.”

Mohammed strolls along the Corniche with his six-year-old son Ibrahim, who asks his father to snap pictures of him next to the flags and signs of welcome.

Added Mohammed, “Football has the power to bring people together and having the tournament here means a lot, not only for Basra but for all of Iraq. It will change the picture of Iraq from an unsecure land with killings in every corner to a stable country with peaceful people. The event will help opening up Iraq to tourists and investment.”

However, he admitted that “it still needs a few more years for full recovery.”

Former Champions

When the tournament was staged in Baghdad in 1979, the hosts were crowned champions. Iraq also won in 1984 and 1988.

Following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait that led to severing ties between Baghdad and other Gulf States, the Iraqi team was banned from taking part in the competition.

It returned in 2004, a year after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

After 2010, Iraq pushed for hosting the event, but the fragile security situation in many parts of the country, political upheaval and a lack of sports infrastructure discouraged the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation.

To meet requirements, Iraq over the past few years has built modern sports facilities and hotels.

It constructed the Basra International Stadium with a capacity of 65,000. It is also called the Trunk of the Palm because its design is inspired by the palm trees for which Basra is famed.

It also built the Al-Minaa Olympic Stadium in Basra, which can accommodate 30,000 spectators. New five-star hotels have sprung up in the City.

Festive Mood

A few days ahead of the competition, the City was in a festive mood with preparations on in full swing.

Workers were seen applying fresh paint to the pavements and plant flowers and trees. Bulldozers remove rubbish and debris from the main streets.

The flags of the Gulf States hang from electricity poles and tall buildings. Billboards welcoming the teams and their fans dot the City, next to posters of militiamen killed in the fight against ISIS between 2014 and 2017.

Reads one banner on the main road linking the Basra International Airport to the City, “Welcome, Gulf people!”

“Basra is your home,” says another, next to the mascot for the tournament, Sinbad the Sailor – one of the region’s legendary characters.

With hotels fully booked, tribal chieftains have offered their mudhifs – public halls where tribes mainly welcome guests and settle community affairs – to host the Gulf fans.

Volunteers have launched a website for residents who want to host visitors. Fans can also apply if they need a place to stay.

Iraq has even waived visa fees and tariffs on cars for Gulf fans.

The Basra Governor Asaad Al Eidani earlier stated, “I’m confident the championship will be the most successful one. The post-championship Iraq will be different from the pre-championship one. It is a step forward to retain Iraq’s normal position in the fields of sport, culture and social activities. It is a message to the whole world that we are capable.”

Missed Opportunities

Despite its oil wealth – about 70 percent of Iraq’s proven reserves of 153.1 billion barrels are found in the Basra province – the City is plagued by broken infrastructure, poverty and violence.

Piles of rubbish are strewn on dusty streets where donkeys, stray dogs, sheep, and goats roam. Rivers running through the City are filled with sewage and rubbish.

Armed tribal disputes often break out inside Basra itself and its outskirts. In August 2022, clashes between Shiite militias erupted, amid months-long political wrangling to form the country’s Government.

Informal settlements can be found near the stadiums and main streets, as well as in the City’s outskirts.

Authorities are erecting metal screens and wooden panels so that these are hidden from visitors.

Put in taxi driver Aziz Mohammed, laughing as he dodged potholes, “It’s as if we are expecting guests at home, but we can’t clean it, so we put a carpet to cover the dirt.”

Like some Basrawis, Mohammed says the tournament is not a priority – “They should have spent these funds on improving public services and find solutions for those living in slums, instead.”

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