The captain of Iraq’s new national rugby team says he is at a loss to describe his pride at the country playing in their first international tournament.
Iraq will debut in the eight-team Arab Rugby Sevens Championship in Jordan this weekend, where they have been pitted in a group also involving the UAE.
A number of the team’s players quit their jobs to focus on playing in the competition, and have been training six days per week at the University of Baghdad in the lead up to it.
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“I can’t describe how it feels to have the chance to represent my country in an international game, to represent Iraq,” Mustafa Abed Hassan, the captain, said.
“I am very proud to be a rugby player. I have been playing for one year, and it has become very important to me. I love this game.”
The team was founded by Ahmed Qassem, who has also become the first president of the Iraq Rugby Union. He first learnt the game as a player when he was abroad in Tunisia and Egypt, where he studied physical education and sports administration.
“I started the idea of establishing a sports union to spread and develop the rugby game in Iraq,” Qassem said. “It was dream I had for a long time, because of my passion and love for this beautiful game.”
Despite football’s dominance in sport in Iraq, Qassem believes the country could be a “fertile ground” for developing rugby, so long as they can get technical support from experienced coaches and administrators from abroad.
Four teams play on a regular basis in the sevens format in Baghdad, but Qassem says that as many as 24 sports clubs, from different provinces of Iraq, have shown an interest in joining the union.
“The journey will be long to spread rugby in Iraq in a way that satisfies our ambitions,” he said. “We need technical support from international organisations that are interested in rugby for the purposes of training our young players to a high level.”
The tournament in Jordan is the third sevens competition organised by the Arab Rugby Federation, and the largest yet.
The UAE Rugby Federation are at the forefront of promoting the game among indigenous players in the Mena region. Qais Al Dhalai, the secretary general of the UAERF, says the game is “on the rise” among Arab nationals.
“Going from four teams in the first edition in El Gouna [in Egypt] to five teams in Marrakech, and now an unprecedented eight teams in Amman is just incredible,” Al Dhalai said.
“Iraq and Palestine are making their debut, and proudly this has happened because of the UAE Rugby Federation and Arab Rugby Federation’s constant efforts.”
The all-Emirati UAE team are in a pool with Iraq, Libya and the hosts Jordan, and Mohammed Shaker, the UAE team manager, is optimistic about the national team’s chances.
“We are confident our players will put forward a very strong challenge and produce the winning results,” Shaker said.