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Iraq Reels After Football Ban

FIFA suspension spurs heated debate over the future of Iraqi football.
By Ammar Sati
Political power struggles continue to rock Iraqi football as fans and analysts scramble to assess the damage to the country’s beloved national game.



The world football body FIFA suspended reigning Asian champion Iraq last week on charges of political meddling after the government’s Olympic committee abruptly sacked the Iraqi Football Association, IFA, and occupied its headquarters with armed guards.



The ensuing debate has pitted former team-mates against each other and launched acrimonious exchanges, from the nation’s bazaars to the highest ranks of the Baghdad government.



“The highest cost will be paid by the Iraqi players and the crowds who have had few chances to watch and cheer on their team,” said Mahdi Ati al-Khrkhi, a diehard national team supporter.



“I just hope this crisis will end. We have had enough pressure and problems – it seems they will never stop,” Khrkhi said as he wiped away tears.



The fact that the predominantly Sunni IFA was ousted by a new Shia administration in Baghdad has been seen by some international media as an apt metaphor for Iraq’s deep sectarian divisions. In a statement, FIFA called the move “unacceptable” and “in total contradiction of IFA and FIFA statutes”.



FIFA’s suspension “is a big blow for Iraqi football. It affects every level of football’s infrastructure,” said James Montague, Middle East football expert and author of the book When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone.



“It looks hugely unprofessional and undermines one of the only unifying factors in Iraqi society,” he said.



Iraq is now barred from all international contests until the ban is lifted. The national team, affectionately known as the Lions of Mesopotamia, and powerhouse club teams in Erbil, Najaf and Sulaimaniyah will not be allowed to play abroad in competitive or friendly matches.



Iraq’s promising under-19 squad, which went undefeated in an Asia Football Confederation qualifying tournament earlier this month in Erbil, will not be able to compete for the Asian championship next year in Japan. The six-team qualifier was the first international tournament hosted by Iraq in decades. [See story: Erbil Scores Big as Football Host http://iwpr.net/?p=icr&s=f&o=357542&apc_state=henpicr]



Dozens of Iraqi football officials, from referees to coaches, are also out of work until the FIFA ban is lifted.



The suspension also halts 1.8 million US dollars in FIFA funding for new training centres in Baghdad and Erbil. The FIFA Emergency Committee has stated that the expulsion will remain in effect until “the decision of the Iraqi Olympic Committee is revoked and the IFA retakes possession of its offices”.



Raad Hamoodi, chief executive of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, told IWPR that IFA was dissolved because the group delayed elections for leadership posts and lacked financial and administrative transparency.



“When the Olympic committee made the decision to dissolve the football union [IFA] it was aware of the possibility of international sanctions. The decision of the Olympic committee is final, and we won’t backtrack no matter what,” Hamoodi said.



Hamoodi said international attorneys have been hired to investigate the FIFA sanctions and the Olympic committee’s executive bureau is “making direct calls to some VIPs to consider the positive part of the Olympic committee’s decision”.



He added that a temporary committee will manage the now-defunct IFA’s operations until “democratic and transparent” elections can be held.



“The Iraqi Olympic Committee endeavours to convey the real image of the country to FIFA, and not the image that has been conveyed by the head of the dissolved football union [IFA] Hussein Saeed Mohammed,” Hamoodi said.



In response, Saeed Mohammed blasted the committee’s allegations, pointing to the IFA’s achievements while under his watch, including a fourth-place finish in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the victorious 2007 Asian Cup. He said the Under-19 team’s recent success may have been too much for the IFA’s political opponents to bear.



“Our achievements have angered those who want to interfere and control the sport. As we were celebrating the success of the tournament in Erbil, the IFA was dissolved for weak reasons,” Saeed Mohammed said. “It was direct interference in our affairs and it was, in turn, rejected by FIFA.”



“The game of football will pay a huge price in Mesopotamia because some people are trying in every way possible to dominate the game,” he added.



There has not always been such bad blood between Hamoodi and Saaed Mohammed. When Iraq’s national team made its best-ever showing in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City, Hamoodi was the team captain and goalkeeper. Saaed Mohammed, arguably Iraq’s greatest player, was the famous side’s star striker.



The next year, however, Iraqi football fell the under the sway of dictator Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday, who ran the Iraqi Olympic committee with a notoriously iron fist until the US-led invasion in 2003. In 1988, Uday was temporarily stripped of the post and jailed for two years for killing Kamil Hanna, the son of his father’s favourite cook.



By the late 1990s, athletes who had fled Iraq began to tell of systematic torture after poor performances. FIFA sent a mission to Iraq in 1997 to investigate the claims and the International Olympic Committee launched an investigation in 2003. No charges were filed.



FIFA suspensions are becoming common, with Greece, Lebanon, Yemen and Iran all receiving bans in recent years. According to sports analyst Montague, suspensions are usually solved quickly as governments bow to the sports’ popularity, and FIFA’s considerable political leverage.



Iraq, for example, was also suspended by FIFA in 2008, when the IFA was disbanded by the ministry of youth and sports. At the time, Iraq was struggling to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and was due to play Australia in a must-win game.



The ministry relented at the last minute and the game was played. Iraq beat Australia, but eventually lost to Qatar.



“FIFA’s actions will now elicit a response from Iraq’s political bodies. It’s interesting that countries that are very difficult to influence politically either by the United States, Europe or the United Nations, change their minds quickly when FIFA gets involved,” Montague said.



He pointed to Iran’s decision to reverse President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sacking of the head of the Iranian Football Federation after a poor showing in the 2006 World Cup.



As it stands, Iraq has failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and as Asian champion has already earned a spot the 2011 Asian Football Confederation Cup in Qatar. In the meantime, however, the nation’s formidable club teams will be left without foreign competition.



“This time it’s different. Iraq doesn’t play a competitive game for six months, so they could be in the international wilderness for a while yet,” Montague said.



This has left Iraqi fans across the political and ethnic spectrum to question the benefit and consequences of an increasingly bitter power struggle over the country’s favourite sport.



“Before I blame FIFA, I blame the politicians in Baghdad. This is their problem because they put their personal interests above the interests of the people – even in football,” said 22-year-old Shwan Jamal, a well-known club footballer in Sulaimaniyah.



“If they don’t solve this problem, I think the sport will be destroyed in Iraq entirely.”



Ammar Sati is an Erbil-based, IWPR-trained reporter. Iraq editor Charles McDermid contributed to this report.

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