Iraq’s four-one win against Saudi Arabia in Basra on Wednesday night was not just a victory on the pitch, but off it as well. It is the first time in around four decades that Iraq has played a home match against neighboring Saudi Arabia, and Iraqi soccer authorities hope that by showing that Iraq can host a game against a team going to the Russia 2018 World Cup, it can help persuade FIFA to lift the ban on Iraq playing competitive matches within its borders.
Since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, Iraq has been unable to play competitive games on home soil. The ban was briefly lifted in 2011 but then reinstated after a power failure during a match against Jordan in Erbil in September 2011. FIFA has allowed Iraq to host friendly matches recently but forced the country to play its home matches for the 2018 World Cup qualification stages in places like Iran and Jordan.
FIFA will decide whether to lift the ban later in March. Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, head of the Asian Football Confederation, said ahead of Wednesday’s match, that the time had come to lift the ban. Iraq had invited FIFA head Gianni Infantino to the match, but he didn’t attend. If the ban is lifted, it would be the biggest day in Iraqi soccer since the country’s historic 2007 Asian Cup triumph.
The venue for Wednesday’s match, the 65,000-seat Basra Sports City Stadium, certainly looks the part. With a design based on a palm tree, the stadium, which opened in 2013, cost over half a billion dollars to build and certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of the country. It was meant to host the 2013 Gulf Cup, but that competition was moved to Bahrain instead, with the following Gulf Cup also being switched from Basra, this time to Saudi Arabia because of infrastructure and security concerns. The oil boom that helped fund the stadium has now ended, but while Basra still has many problems, it was largely unaffected by the campaign against ISIS in the north of the country, which ended last year. The British Foreign Office still advises against all but essential travel to Basra, but the city is one of the safer areas of Iraq and security forces were in place to ensure the match went smoothly.
Everything also went smoothly on the pitch for Iraq, who were expected to struggle as they were missing a host of regular players. Saudi Arabia had more possession and shots on goal, but the statistic that matters showed an emphatic Iraq victory.
For Saudi Arabia, the result is a surprise turnaround from their 3-0 win over Moldova a couple of days earlier. The friendly matches are part of Saudi Arabia’s all-out efforts to prepare for Russia 2018. The national team has already changed head coach twice since qualifying for the World Cup, with Argentinian Juan Antonio Pizzi currently in charge of the side.
While the recent friendlies will help the new coach learn more about his team, many of Saudi Arabia’s better players were missing from the side that lost to Iraq. Some of those players are out on loan to Spanish La Liga and Segunda Division clubs in an attempt to improve the Saudi Arabia national team in time for Russia 2018, but so far none of those players have started a match in Spain, although one player, Ali Al Nemer, did make the substitutes bench for second division side CD Numancia last weekend..