Sports in Iraq bear the brunt of political instability and turmoil


Not only politics is the reason why sports tournaments may not be held in Iraq, but also finances put another nail in the coffin of such sports events.

The political upheaval that has swept through Iraq in recent weeks has numerous ramifications. The country’s political trajectory is obstructed by impasse and uncertainty. The country’s economy is suffering further setbacks as corruption exacerbates the country’s economic wounds. However, another industry is suffering as a result of the current political impasse: sports. 

Iraq Football Association said it was informed by the Asian Football Confederation that qualifiers of AFC U-20 Asian Cup will be held in another country. According to a statement published on the Australian Federation’s official website, the Australian Football Association announced last Friday that it would withdraw from the Asian Cup U-20 qualifiers scheduled in the city of Basra for security reasons. “After careful consideration and based on the current travel advice of the Australian government,” the Australian Federation added in a statement.

The decision came in the aftermath of weeks of political turmoil over the country’s failure to designate a prime minister or form a government. Yet there are reports that 25th Arabian Gulf Cup, which is scheduled to be held in Iraq’s southern city of Basra in mid-January next year, will be held in an alternative country.  

Basra, the supposed host city of the tournaments, has seen deadly clashes, which killed three and wounded four. The clashes involved supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who were pitted against the Iran-backed militias. 

Al-Sadr is railing against the entire political process in Iraq. He has taken several measures aimed to upend the current political system, which he deems corrupt, sectarian and dysfunctional. He is practicing politics on Islamist-nationalist backgrounds, favoring the establishment of an Iraq-nation state and rejecting the extremist Shiite version of political Islam being sponsored by Iran and established on Velayat-e Faqih theory.

According to watchers of the Iraqi situation, the current upheaval in Iraq not only impact sports but also all fields. This was manifest in the attack on the Australian diplomatic and sports delegations in Baghdad, a move that prompted an Australian decision to withdraw from Asian Cup U-20 qualifiers. 

The clashes and unrest that engulfed Iraq’s Green Zone, where key government offices and diplomatic missions’ headquarters exist, have prompted the Asian Football Confederation to take the decision. More dangerously, such a move could impact the fate of 25th Arabian Gulf Cup. Although the Gulf States are keen to hold the tournament in Iraq, they could decide that they won’t send their football teams to a country plagued by lack of security and political disputes. 

The Iraqi state is on a descending path. All the country’s sectors are deteriorating. The relative political stability that the country has enjoyed is dying away. Yet the country needs to establish sports facilities, stadiums, halls and hotels for it to be able to host Arab and continental sports tournaments. 

Financial bickering 

Not only politics is the reason why sports tournaments may not be held in Iraq, but also finances put another nail in the coffin of such sports events. This comes as the financing of 25th Arabian Gulf Cup sparked a row between provincial officials and the Iraqi cabinet. Provincial officials and lawmakers announced their protest against and rejection of the latest cabinet decision which stipulated that the financial appropriations for the projects in the province shall be channeled to the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup scheduled to be held in the province early next year. 

The lawmakers called for the tournament to be financed from the state’s general budget instead of cutting down on the province’s projects. In a press statement, Basra’s governor Asaad Al Eidani announced dismissing the cabinet’s decision.  For his part, Mohammad Taher al-Tamimi, first deputy of Basra’s governor, said in a statement that the total budget allocated to the province is 1.2 trillion Iraqi dinars ($820 million) and in case of transferring the funds to 25th Arabian Gulf Cup, all the services projects in the province will be suspended.

“The local government has prepared an integrated urban and services plan for the province, as well as another plan for the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup,” Al-Tamimi added, noting that the province asked the federal government to allocate more funds for the tournament.

According to him, Basra provincial officials were surprised by the cabinet decision to transfer the province’s appropriations to the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup and transferring part of the operational budget to the ministry of youth and sports. He argued that the federal government should allocate a separate budget to the tournament as it isn’t confined to Basra but encompasses the entire Iraq. 

Politics above anything else  

Ironically, the deterioration of sports in Iraq wasn’t mainly caused by the country’s lack of sports credentials or professional sportsmen. After the US invasion of 2003, according to many, the Iraqi sports was slayed on the altar of politics, with partisan and sectarian figures being placed in charge of sports institutions, leading to deeper corruption and greater failure at home and overseas. 

Political analysts argue that the political class that doesn’t care about the future of Iraq won’t care about the sports sector.  This argument seems to be backed up by the long history of failure in snatching medals or winning tournaments. In the span of nearly seven decades, since the first participation in the Olympic Games of London in 1948 to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016, Iraq only won a Bronze medal-snatched by Weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz in Rome 1960. This egregious failure seems to be inextricably linked to political instability. 

Iraqi sports, like Iraqi politics, are in trouble. This appears to be because the entire country prioritizes politics over everything else. Surprisingly, the country is experiencing abject political failure, which has led to ignominious failure in the country’s other sectors. Moving the AFC U-20 Asian Cup from Iraq, which could follow the fate of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup, could be devastating to the Iraqi sports sector. But it should serve as a wake-up call to Iraq’s entire political class that unending political squabbles will ruin everything in a country whose people long for stability and have long missed the taste of triumphs—even in sports.

Mostapha Hassan Abdelwahab is the former editorial manager of the English edition of the Baghdad Post. He is focusing on Iraqi and Iranian affairs, with articles posted on the Herald Report, Vocal Europe and other platforms.

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