Erbil Scores Big as Football Host

Locals beaming on and off field, as staging of Asian tournament boosts city’s resurgence.

Erbil Scores Big as Football Host

Locals beaming on and off field, as staging of Asian tournament boosts city’s resurgence.

The growing confidence and hopes of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, have been further fueled with its hosting of the country’s first international football tournament for decades, in which the national team won, hands down.

The country’s youth side turned the six-team 2010 Asian Football Confederation, AFC, under-19 championship qualifying tournament into a cakewalk. The local team went undefeated, conceding no goals en route to a 3-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia in the final this week. The national team has now booked a place in the finals in Japan next year.

“This will tell the whole world that Iraq youth are still able to win football games no matter where they come from or what they have been through,” said national under-19 coach Hasan Ahmed. “They have projected a great image of Iraq and Iraqis. You can see how well the players played together, regardless of their backgrounds.”

The thrilling victories – inspired by diminutive left-winger Amjad “Juju” Walid – provided a feel-good moment for Erbil, and Iraq. Local residents, however, were quick to note that football success was only half the story.

The prestigious tournament, free of security concerns and nationalistic tension, has reinforced Erbil’s claim as Iraq’s sporting capital and further distinguishes the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region from the still-troubled capital Baghdad and other restive areas.

Local officials felt the tournament will help them communicate that Erbil, as evidenced by massive construction and infrastructure projects, is open for business.

But as the tournament got under way the omens were not good. The Indian team threatened to pull out, citing security concerns, and many players expressed nervousness on arriving in Iraq. Even Iraqi players and fans were reluctant to make the trip from Baghdad, anxious about the security situation. Some Erbil residents said they understood.

“If I was in their place, I would think the same. All they knew was that the tournament would be in Iraq – they didn’t know… the situation in Kurdistan,” said 18-year-old Barzan Osman, an Erbil resident who went to all the Iraq games in the tournament.

“But there were a lot of people here together - Arabs, Kurds and foreigners – and there was no tension. They played the [national] anthems of other countries and the crowd respected them.”

For Osman and others, the tournament is an encouraging sign for the future. In an official statement, the AFC said the event has ushered in “a new era in Iraqi football”.

“I was very happy. It represents a great event for my country. Finally, I'm watching Iraq like millions of fans who dreamt of this moment,” said Salih Hameed Jassim, a Baghdad resident and former national team goalkeeper.

While the event was staged by the AFC, the renowned Erbil team - Iraq’s national champions for the past three years - and its stadium were the unofficial hosts.

Several years ago, few would have dreamt that it would all be possible. Abdullah Agha, president of Erbil Football Club, sits behind a massive hard-wood desk inside the Franso Hariri Stadium, reflecting on the turbulence of the past couple of decades, which had decimated football development in the region.

“After the Kurdish uprising in 1991, the Erbil team was not allowed to play even on its own soil. We had no money or support until 1998; no equipment, no training fields or an adequate stadium. I can say that our infrastructure was less than zero,” he said.

According to Agha, worse was to come with the Kurdish civil war during the 1990s. Erbil became the hardest-hit city during the conflict, and the popular local side didn’t play at all for more than a year. After the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, Agha continued, Iraqi teams had more freedom to travel and train – and soon began to prosper.

“Sport is not for a particular party or a particular sect. Our teams here are made up of different tribes and sects and all the players work together for the good of the country,” he said. “What politicians can’t do – sport can do.”

Increasingly, Iraqi Kurdistan has gone it alone in terms of financing and organising international events. Yousef Izzadin, head of finance for the Erbil team, said that the Kurdish Football Federation spent 700 million dinars (617,000 US dollars) on the AFC tournament and charged no admission to the games.

The local government’s commitment to staging the tournament was not lost on Ahmed.

“It is an important event in Iraq and it wouldn’t have happened without the help of Kurdistan officials and politicians,” he said. “The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) must be thanked for the high level of organisation and support.”

Agha and other officials view the development of sport as a means of marketing the region and attracting further foreign investment and cultural exchanges.

“The result of a football match is not necessarily important. What was important was that this tournament enabled us to tell the world the region was safe – that not all parts of Iraq are the same,” Agha said. “We want to attract politicians and delegations that have never been to this region.”

IWPR trainee reporters Hogar Hasan and Farah Ali together with IWPR Iraq editor Charles McDermid contributed to this report.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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