Better relations are the goal in Iraq-Saudi football friendly

Successful hosting of fixture helps Iraq's case to end Fifa ban on hosting international competitive matches

Iraqi and Saudi soccer fans cheer, waving national flags during a friendly soccer match between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in Basra, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
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It is a not a venue renowned for floral tributes – but this was not a normal evening. And the match between Iraq and Saudi Arabia was no ordinary game.

The exchange of flowers between the national football teams was a symbol of unity before kick-off on Wednesday evening, and the match – a friendly played in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, was the latest evolution of the countries' burgeoning relations.

After the defeat of ISIL in December, Baghdad is seeking to reconcile with Riyadh not only in political and economic matters but also in sports.

Wednesday's match, resulting in 4-1 victory for Iraq, was not only a win on the pitch but also supports Iraq's case to overturn a ban imposed by Fifa, football's world governing body, on hosting international competitive games.

It was the first time in almost four decades that Iraq has played at home against Saudi Arabia, whose team is preparing for the World Cup finals in Russia in June.

"Strengthening sporting, cultural and educational ties between Iraq and countries in the region is a key priority for Iraq," the government said in a tweet, while Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi said "we ask Fifa to restore competitive fixtures in Iraq, we are ready".

Fifa will decide whether to lift the ban later in March.

The ban on Iraq hosting international matches has been in place since the 1990 Iraq's invasion of Kuwait under Saddam Hussein and continued even after the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled the Iraqi dictator. It was lifted briefly in 2012, but a power outage during a match against Jordan in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil led Fifa to reinstate it.

In Basra, a mood of excitement swept through the city ahead of the match as social media campaigns welcomed the Saudi team to Iraq with the slogan: “Greens, you’re home."

"This is a dream for Iraqis, the match is more than a game, whether we win or lose we have won by having our Saudi brothers in the country," wrote an Iraqi user on Twitter, while a Saudi user wrote, "We are not playing to win but playing for Iraq."

Travel agencies throughout Iraq organised trips to Basra for the game.

"Increased cultural and sporting ties are an important step to developing strong Iraqi-Saudi relationship and supporting regional stability. Looking forward to a good match between the two teams," the British embassy in Iraq said on Twitter.

For Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, the match was part of increasing diplomatic and economic relations with Baghdad. The closer ties also serve as a counterweight to Iranian influence in Iraq, which has grown in the post-Saddam era.

"Big crowds and lots of brotherly love during the friendly match," said a senior adviser at the Saudi embassy in Washington, Faisal bin Farhan.

Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the match displayed goodwill at the government and popular levels and was "another indicator of the seriousness of Saudi-Iraq rapprochement".

"The Gulf states increasingly recognise that it was a mistake to ignore Iraq after 2003 and thereby leave it to Iran, and they are working hard to rectify that mistake," Mr Knights told The National.

Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in January 2016, and in February last year Adel Al Jubeir made a rare visit to the Iraqi capital by a Saudi foreign minister. Saudi Arabia and Iraq also reopened the Arar border crossing last year and resumed regular flights between the two countries.


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