Magic of football to bring love and peace to Basra

Iraq will host the Arabian Gulf Cup for the first time since 1979 - and one filmmaker is using a wood-panelled bus to promote it

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Essam Jaafar Athab is counting down the days to the long-awaited Arabian Gulf Cup in Iraq early next year.

What makes the eight-team football tournament special for Mr Athab, 46, is that not only will Iraq be hosting it for the first time since 1979, but his hometown of Basra is the venue.

“Iraq has not seen this event for over 40 years now,” Mr Athab, a filmmaker and a professor Basra’s University's College of Fine Arts, told The National.

“It is a big event that we have been waiting for for years and what makes it special is that my city will host it."

The 25th Gulf Cup will be held in Basra from January 6 to 19, when Iraq will be joined by Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen.

For many Iraqis, hosting the biennial tournament is a sign of their country's recovery after years of conflict, political and economic crises and uneasy relations with Gulf neighbours.

Mr Athab sees it as an opportunity to promote his city and strengthen Iraq's regional ties.

Over the past two years, he has been planning to create a TV programme to promote the tournament and to express gratitude to Gulf states.

His idea is centred around the wood-panelled buses that were the main form of public transport in Basra for decades.

The buses were based on Chevrolet Apache pickup trucks imported in the 1950s, with wooden sidings built by local carpenters to convert the bed into compartments suitable for passengers and cargo.

“This bus is one of Basra’s icons that is deeply connected to its heritage and culture,” he said.

“It didn’t operate only in Basra, but it also reached Gulf states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”

It took Mr Athab almost a year to restore one of the few remaining models, at a cost of nearly 60 million Iraqi dinars ($40,000).

He has named it the Gulf Bus and plans to take it to all 18 of Iraq's provinces and then the Gulf states before the start of the football tournament.

He says the tour will be "a journey of love and peace" intended to promote Basra and strengthen ties.

The refurbished vehicle is full of symbolism.

It has been painted blue in reference to the waters of the Arabian Gulf, and fitted with the flags of the eight countries participating in the Arabian Gulf Cup.

A copy of the tournament's trophy, which was designed by the renowned Iraqi sculptor Ahmed Al Bahrani, is attached to the bus bonnet.

Inside, the seats are covered with flat-woven kilims made by Iraqi women farmers from the southern province of Samawa, with messages such as: “You are welcome” and “Our Gulf is one”.

The Gulf Bus tour will be filmed and then aired as a 15-part series during the tournament, Mr Athab said.

Meanwhile, work is under way in Basra to prepare the stadiums in which the matches will be played and the hotels where the teams and fans will stay.

Oil-rich Basra is Iraq’s second-largest city and sits on about 70 per cent of the country’s proven oil reserves of an estimated 153 billion barrels. It borders Iran and Kuwait and is Iraq’s only outlet to the Arabian Gulf.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, who took office last month, has pledged his government will do everything possible to ensure the tournament in Basra is a success.

Iraq won the tournament when it last played host in 1979, as well as in 1984 and 1988.

The eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's Kuwait invasion in 1990 that led to the cutting of ties with the region, and the deteriorating security situation that followed the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, have for years prevented Iraq from hosting the event.

When security started to improve in 2010, Iraq expressed readiness to host the tournament again.

Basra was selected to play host three times since but the venue was changed each time because of security concerns.

Last year, the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation again named Basra as the venue. The tournament was initially set to take place in December this year, but was postponed to January as it was scheduled too close to the World Cup in Qatar, which kicks off on Sunday.

Updated: November 19, 2022, 4:12 AM