Iraq and Saudi Arabia Come Together Just for Kicks

Fresh sod had been carefully mowed in the new stadium. Special trains carried thousands of fans on the 10-hour journey from Baghdad. Intelligence agents had even coached the team’s official cheerleader to make the visiting team feel welcome.

But when the Iraqi national soccer team played its first home game against Saudi Arabia in almost 40 years, diplomatic niceties vanished as soon as the Iraqi team took the field.

“We hope the Saudis will feel comfortable in our town,” said Diah Taliq, a car mechanic who took off early from work to attend the match. “But that’s where our sympathy stops. On the field, we hope to crush them.”

The exhibition game in Basra last week between the Iraqi national soccer team and Saudi Arabia was the first against a major regional rival on Iraqi soil since 1990, when the international soccer federation, known as FIFA, banned international matches in Iraq, primarily because of security concerns.

To Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, it was an athletic coming-out celebration, a sign that Iraq had closed a chapter on its war-afflicted past and, in the wake of its defeat of the Islamic State in December, was on the path to stability.

But the match was also a potent symbol of sports diplomacy, with the visitors from the region’s major Sunni Muslim power, Saudi Arabia, coming to Basra, a historic port city in Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.

For Iraqi fans, the warm winter night offered the simple joys afforded to spectators at any big match: emotional catharsis and redemption.

“This is so exciting,” said Dunia Najah, 24, an art school graduate from Basra who was attending her first soccer match. “It’s so hard in Iraq to follow your dreams, but we see something like this and finally we feel hope this situation will get better.”

Neither the battleground nor the contending sides bore any resemblance to those for which Basra is infamous: the pitched street battles fought by Shiite militias that just a few years ago turned some neighborhoods into no-go zones.

Instead, zealots of a different sort owned the day: families, university students and workers armed with vuvuzelas and draped in national flags cheering the Iraqi team.

The match with the Mideast soccer heavyweight — the Saudi team qualified for the 2018 World Cup — had acquired heavy political dimensions given the years of frosty ties between the two countries since the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraq, a majority Shiite Muslim country, has been caught in the regional battle for influence between the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its neighbor to the south, and the Persian Shiite government in Iran, to the east. After 2003, when Iraq’s Sunni minority was largely disenfranchisedand subject to sectarian revenge killings, some Saudis stepped in and, according to American intelligence, privately backed Sunni jihadists responsible for years of bloodshed.

But relations between the two countries have recently warmed. Last year, Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad. Last month, it offered investment guarantees for Saudi businesses wanting to enter the economy, a pledge Mr. Abadi hopes to parlay into votes among Iraq’s Sunnis in the May national elections.

The Basra governor, Assaad al-Edani, said that the idea of a Saudi delegation visiting his hometown was unthinkable until recently, in part because of Basra’s reputation. “We want to make the most of this opportunity,” he said before the match.

While Iraqi officials were consumed with diplomacy, Basra’s civic leaders concentrated on making sure the event went off without a hitch.

“It’s our honor on the line,” said Abdullah Jiboori, whose construction company built the three-year-old, 60,000-seat Basra International Stadium, the largest sports arena in the Arab world.

The arena’s steel-and-mesh exterior resembles the fronds of Iraq’s national tree — the date palm — and its futuristic facade dominates an urban landscape populated with crumbling, low-slung mud-brick homes.

Iraq narrowly lost out to Saudi Arabia in the World Cup qualifying matches last year, a defeat that Iraqi sports analysts attribute not to the Saudi team’s superiority but to the psychological disadvantage of the FIFA ban. For years, Iraq has played home matches in neutral countries, like Iran or Jordan.

“Playing in your own land is something that can’t be underestimated,” said Mohammed Khalaf, the head of communications for the national soccer league, the Iraqi Football Association.

As game time approached, the streets around the stadium were clogged with vendors selling Iraqi national flags, cold water and shwarma sandwiches to the gathering fans.

Inside the packed stadium, there was a noticeable lack of Saudi fans — organizers said they had no requests for tickets from Saudi soccer authorities — but there was a smattering of Saudi flags, which the Iraqi soccer association handed out as part of its hospitality campaign.

Also notable in its absence was the complete lack of Iraqi sectarian symbols.

In a city where Shiite iconography flies proudly from homes, and the insignia of religious militias decorate cars and emblazon baseball hats, the only paraphernalia carried by fans was the tricolor Iraqi flag. “We don’t feel our differences today,” said Raad Nasr, a 22-year-old laborer.

The crowd politely applauded as the Saudi team took the field. But at the opening strains of the Iraqi national anthem, they roared to life, the lyrics acting as a bellows for the embers of a long dormant national pride.

Arab sports teams don’t have mascots, but many employ the regional equivalent of a cheerleader, a superfan designated to whip up the crowd’s emotions. For the Lions of Mesopotamia, as the Iraqi team is called, Mehdi Kerki fills that role.

Worried that the Saudis wouldn’t receive the warm welcome that the government wanted, the domestic intelligence service insisted on meeting Mr. Kerki the night before the game to review his planned cheers.

“It’s our duty to make them feel welcome,” Mr. Kerki explained.

But as the game began, he abandoned his plans for pro-Saudi chants. Instead, he beat a drum and chanted “IR-AQ, IR-AQ, IR-AQ.”

Twenty minutes into the match, he joined the explosion of cheers when the Lions scored the first goal.

When the match ended, many in the crowd broke into celebratory dance, as Iraq beat Saudi Arabia 4-1.

Fans streaming toward the buses home were clearly satisfied with Iraq’s performance but evinced no desire to rub it in. Sportswriters in both countries later described the win as unsurprising, given that the majority of the Saudi starting team did not play because of a grueling World Cup practice schedule.

Still, the night revived a favorite theme among many older Iraqis — nostalgia for the days when their homeland was celebrated as a center of Arab learning, a place of tolerance where cosmopolitanism reigned — and hopes that the country could recapture that spirit.

“We have been divided by war, by bloodshed and fighting,” said Mr. Jiboori, the Basra businessman. “We Iraqis feared that we had lost our culture, and lost our hope. But today was different. Today we were united.”

Iraqi sports diplomacy had one immediate dividend, according to the prime minister’s office.

The Saudi king told Mr. Abadi in a phone call on Monday that he would build a new soccer stadium for Iraq in Baghdad.


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