International football made its long-awaited return to Iraq last week, seven years after an international match last graced one of the country's stadiums. The two friendly fixtures pitted the reigning Asian champions against their Palestinian counterparts in an initiative aimed at restoring the country's top stadiums to their former glory through international football.
Despite not playing on home soil since 2002, the Lions of Mesopotamia remained close to the hearts of their passionate supporters, who turned up in huge numbers to see their heroes in Arbil on Friday 10 July and in Baghdad the following Monday. In the wake of the historic ties, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to new coach Shaker Nathem, goalkeeper Mohammed Gassid and forward Alaa Abdul-Zahra.
Nathem took over the coaching duties from the Serbian Bora Milutinovic, who vacated the post after leading the team at the recent FIFA Confederations Cup, in which they failed to score and exited at the group stage.
On his debut last Friday, the former Iraqi international steered his charges to a 3-0 victory in the northern city of Arbil. He then followed that up with an equally impressive 4-0 win just four days later at the Al-Shaab stadium in the capital Baghdad. "I'm overjoyed to have witnessed international action in our stadiums once again. The huge crowds in both Arbil and Baghdad left me speechless," Nathem said after the second game.
"The games against Palestine were a message to the entire footballing world," the coach added. "The passion for football and for the national team was crystal clear in the eyes of the Iraqis gathered in their thousands to attend both games. Thanks to our players, we were able to repay that affection by winning both ties."
Commenting on the decision by the AFC to allow Iraqi clubs and national teams to host matches in the northern city of Arbil, Nathem told FIFA.com "As coach of Iraq's national team, I was more than happy to lead those talented players in the friendlies, and I just hope further steps can soon be taken that will enable Iraqis to host matches in any of their cities."
Goalkeeper Mohammed Gassid expressed his delight with the huge crowds that flooded the two venues and spoke of his pride at playing on home soil again after having to use Syria, Jordan and Qatar for their home fixtures for so long.
"First of all I'd like to thank the Palestinian team who provided the opposition for these historic matches," said the veteran goalkeeper who made headlines with his displays at June's FIFA Confederations Cup. "I'd also like to thank the tens of thousands of Iraqis who gathered to support their national team in both games."
"I've been told that people started to arrive at the Al-Shaab stadium from daybreak to attend the second game. I think this shows the importance of hosting major games in Iraq," he added
Gassid's team-mate Alaa Abdul-Zahra also remarked on the huge attendance, saying, "Even for a home game in front of our own fans, what we felt out there was very special. Our supporters ignored the security risks and began flocking to the stadium from the early hours to see their beloved team in the flesh. That's something truly magnificent."
"Our dear fans played a crucial role in helping us perform to the best of our ability and win both games," added the veteran frontman, scorer of his side's third goal in Baghdad on Monday."My wish now is that international football can be seen again in every Iraqi city in the near future".