For many Iraqis, the first international football tournament their country is hosting in more than four decades is about to kick off in the southern city of Basra, offering a rare moment of joy and optimism.
The eight-nation Arabian Gulf Cup starts Friday, with teams from the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — as well as Yemen and Iraq. It’s the first time since 1979 that turmoil-wracked Iraq is home to the tournament.
For two weeks, the matches will be a respite from all the violence, political and economic crises, fans and officials said. Decades of unrest and conflict have prompted a series of FIFA bans on Iraq hosting international matches.
That has forced the Iraqi team to play home games abroad. Since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted President Saddam Hussein, Iraq has only played three competitive matches on home turf.
If the 25th edition of the Gulf Cup goes smoothly, it could encourage FIFA to allow World Cup qualifiers to return to Baghdad.
“As Iraqis we have suffered for decades, and so we’re very happy that this Gulf tournament can take place on Iraqi soil in Basra,” said Akram al-Iraqi, a Basra resident taking a stroll on the bustling corniche promenade by the Shatt al-Arab, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Also, Iraq’s ties with the GCC have been strained for decades as Iran-backed militias and political factions rose in prominence in the country. Basra, the center of Iraq’s petroleum industry, has not been spared from the country’s political turmoil, violent clashes, and crumbling infrastructure.
These days, the city is reinvigorated and busier than ever. Security forces have been deployed in large numbers as tourists from neighboring Gulf countries pour in for the tournament.
“Most people visiting from the Gulf countries see Basra and Iraq as unsafe,” said Fouad Al-Helfi, another Basra resident, standing outside a hotel. “But it seems they’re changing their views ... we’re seeing it in posts they’re putting up on social media.”
There are also hopes for an economic windfall. Oil-rich Basra has fallen on hard times, with rising temperatures and drought induced by climate change and poor management of water resources.
Its farming sector has been devastated while its once famous tourism industry has floundered. Some 40 percent of Basra’s estimated population of 1.4 million lives in poverty, while unemployment is soaring.
“It’s going to help revive the economy and tourism,” said Laith Jasb, middle-aged resident who remembers better times.
Iraqi families with children mingle with Saudi and Kuwaiti tourists strolling along the Shatt al-Arab corniche.
Merchants crowded the promenade, selling coffee, gifts, and Iraqi flag. Waiters at a hotel lobby nearby scurried to bring patrons coffee and shishas, traditional water pipes for smoking tobacco.
Adel Kabbasi, a Yemeni journalist who flew to Basra for the tournament, said he has felt safe and comfortable since his arrival.
Noor Majid, a football fan who came to Basra from the capital, Baghdad, said she hopes the Gulf Cup will help ease “some political tensions” with booming GCC countries and encourage their investments.
“I think it’s a chance for Iraq and the Gulf countries to recalibrate their relationship,” she said.
The Iraqi Football Federation sees the tournament as an opportunity in restoring confidence in having Iraq host more sporting competitions.
“Everything that we had planned on paper is being implemented,” said Yousif Faeal, the federation’s media director.
As for trophy hopes, Iraq won the tournament as host in 1979 for the first time, and twice more in the 1980s.
Grouped with Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman for the first round in Basra, Iraq is now hoping for a fourth tournament win.
The top two teams from each group progress to the semifinals. The final will take place at the Basra International Stadium, which holds some 65,000 spectators on January 19.