Last month, a FIFA delegation embarked on an official mission to Iraq. Representatives of the FIFA Development Division and the FIFA Development Office in Amman travelled to Erbil to get an impression of how things currently stand in the home of the reigning Asian champions, and also to launch the construction of a training centre as part of the FIFA Goal Project. The FIFA delegation was accompanied the Hussein Saeed, president of the Iraqi national association.
It soon became evident in Erbil just how passionate about the game the Iraqi are. Young and old can be found on the streets having a kick-about, while the many markets all have a wide variety of football-based products for sale. Local favourites Erbil FC have won the Iraqi league three seasons in a row, much to the delight of the healthy following which fill the Franso-Hariri Stadium and make plenty of noise in the process.
The enthusiasm for football has in no means been dampened by the tense political situation and conflicts of the last two decades. The Iraqi league had to be cancelled two years in a row, but has been up and running again since autumn 2004. The country's finest hour came three years later in 2007, when the national team created a real upset by winning the AFC Asian Cup. Winning this continental tournament meant that Iraq also qualified for the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009, where they managed draws against the hosts and New Zealand and only went down 1-0 to European champions Spain - proof that the country can more than hold its own on the international stage.
The Iraqi team has therefore been making headlines, both on the pitch and in the dressing room. The squad is made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and is very much a symbol for unity and reconciliation. That team unfortunately were not able to play in front of their home supporters: after a 2002 encounter in Baghdad against Syria, all matches had to be held in neighbouring countries due to the conflict.
Home at last
Seven years later, however, on 10 July 2009, and this exile was finally brought to an end, with the Iraqi national team once again allowed to play on their home soil. "This is more proof of how the situation is improving," said Tareq Ahmed of the Iraqi FA. 35,000 fans in Erbil saw Iraq take on a Palestinian side and run out 3-0 winners. Another match between the two teams was held three days later in Baghdad with over 55,000 fans thoroughly enjoying another Iraqi victory, this time by a 4-0 scoreline.
The results of course were not the most important thing - the Iraqis were delighted at being able to return home and also to celebrate the AFC's decision that Erbil would be the future venue for domestic and international AFC matches within Iraq. Erbil FC will the first team to take advantage of this new ruling - instead of playing their AFC Cup matches in Amman, Jordan, as was the case in the past, they will now be able to count on their partisan home support.
Off the pitch as well, Iraqi football is very much on the up. A FIFA referees course was held from 17-23 March in Erbil, followed by a FIFA coaching course in early July. Course leader Marcos Falopa was most pleased with the high standards set by the 30 participants, who themselves were delighted to be able to get right up to date with the latest technical and tactical developments after years of isolation. The courses were indeed such a success that more training sessions and activities are being planned in Erbil for the future.
However, the most important commitment to football in Iraq is the FIFA Goal Project, which saw the IFA's headquarters completed in early 2007 along with a training centre. A second centre with modern facilities is also planned for just outside Erbil in an ambitious project set to cost 800,000 US dollars. The laying of the ceremonial foundation stone on 28 July was attended by various government representatives, again underlining how important the Goal Project is not just for Iraqi football, but also for the city of Erbil and the surrounding region.
After a breathless few days, the FIFA delegation returned home, safe in the knowledge that FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter's wish that "football should contribute to forming a better future" will definitely be implemented in Erbil.