It is almost ten years since war returned to Iraq, and although the situation has improved since then, the country remains plagued by high levels of violence. Hardly ideal conditions for sport to thrive, but football has retained its strong roots and the national team now boasts a realistic chance of reaching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. A delegation from the Iraqi Football Association visited the Home of FIFA on Friday, allowing IFA President Al-Obaidi Najeh and national team coach Zico the chance to meet with FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter. was there to bring you coverage.

“Throughout all these difficult years, football has provided an example by maintaining a certain continuity,” explained Mr Najeh, the former player, coach and referee opening his meeting with President Blatter by stressing his unswerving faith in the game. “It’s even been held up as an example by politicians, who emphasise that there are no conflicts on Iraqi pitches. Football has proved during this time of conflict that life goes on.”

Those words resonated with President Blatter, and he quickly took up the theme. “I saw for myself the impact football has on the Iraqi people in 2007,” he said. “I was in Jakarta for Iraq’s victory in the Asian Cup and saw the joy of the people there. It was further evidence and a clear sign of football’s tremendous social impact.” 

Football has proved during this time of conflict that life goes on.

Al-Obaidi Najeh, IFA President

Problems nonetheless remain and it is still no straightforward matter to play the game in Iraq. Mr Najeh is optimistic for the future, but he is realistic about the current situation and explained to that the principal concern is security. “The widespread instability in Iraq is a real challenge,” he said. “Above all, the death of innocent people is hard to live with on a day-to-day basis. But the situation has improved a lot recently and we live normal lives, almost like anywhere else in the world. Our security is assured and the Iraqi mentality has evolved a lot too: people have understood – a little late, certainly – that their unity is their strength. So the situation is a lot better now.”

FIFA has undertaken its own efforts to help Iraq as well through its various development initiatives. Goal II and III project plans to build a technical centre in the northern city of Arbil were approved in 2008, and the centre has now been constructed. It will be further bolstered later this year, with a Goal IV project stipulating the laying of a natural pitch. In addition, since 2010 FIFA has begun organising technical courses in Iraq again, in particular for coaches and women’s football. Two refereeing courses are due to be held there before the year is out.

Still, much remains to be done, which may make it seem slightly incongruous that Iraq’s national team has been coached by iconic former Brazil playmaker Zico since late last summer. Looked at more closely, though, his appointment made plenty of sense. “I’ve known the country well for a long time because my brother was Iraq coach before their last World Cup appearance, in 1986,” he said. “In fact, they offered my brother the job this time as well, but as I’ve been working with him for the last seven years, he spoke to me and we accepted the challenge.”

The erstwhile Flamengo star would be the first to admit that logistical problems persist, however. “We never know where we’re going to be able to set up base. We have to train abroad and that’s not easy. We’ve come across problems with hotels, training pitches and infrastructure in general. Everything went well in Qatar, but each time we have to rely on the good will of others as we’re dependent on them. On top of that, we’re regularly faced with visa problems.”

I think football can be an important tool in the rebuilding of the country, because Iraqis love football – I can assure you of that.

Zico, Iraq national team coach

Despite those drawbacks, Zico is fully focused on steering his team to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. “I have a very experienced side, with plenty of players between the ages of 30 and 32 who’ve won lots of trophies in Asia,” he said. “But they’ve never qualified for a World Cup and this is undoubtedly their last chance.”

His charges have performed superbly so far and will start the fourth round of qualifying high on confidence after cruising through the last two. Like Zico, Mr Najeh is hoping that they can continue in the same fashion, though the IFA President’s overarching ambition is to change attitudes. “The thing closest to my heart is undoubtedly being able to teach youngsters the fundamental principles of football: working together, loving your neighbour, respecting discipline and upholding fair play. Respect, unity and mental strength are aspects of football that can be applied to life and must be applied to life to bring the people together.”

Zico, who retains fond memories of playing before a packed stadium in Baghdad with Flamengo in 1986, is similarly keen for progress to continue. “I’d really like the situation to improve there, for the players to be able to play in their own country and for there to be more calm and serenity. And I really hope that football can contribute to that improvement in its own way. I think football can be an important tool in the rebuilding of the country, because Iraqis love football – I can assure you of that.”