Iraq is hosting its first international tournament after decades of war and instability.
Iraq welcomed its first international football tournament in decades on Friday with a spectacular ceremony to kick off the Arabian Gulf Cup.
The opening ceremony was held ahead of the first match between Iraq and Oman at the Basra International Stadium, where thousands of fans watched on with excitement for the first such tournament since 1979.
With all eyes on Iraq after a successful World Cup in nearby Qatar, FIFA President Gianni Infantino attended the opening ceremony, joined by chief of Qatar Olympic Committee Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani, Iraq’s President of the Football Association Adnan Darjal, as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani.
Iraq was banned from playing in the regional tournament from 1992 until 2004, and the country was prohibited from hosting international games over security concerns until a ban was lifted by FIFA last year.
The ceremony began with an act titled ‘This is Basra’ to showcase Iraqi culture and heritage, welcoming visitors from across the Arab world.
On Tuesday, the Iraq Football Association revealed some 90% percent of tickets had already been sold out.
The Gulf Cup brings together eight teams from the region, including all GCC nations as well as Yemen and Iraq. It will also feature 43 Iraqi, Arab and foreign referees for the very first time, along with the latest officiating technology, including VAR.
“Sports has become one of the most important activities in the world… of transmitting cultures and civilisations through hosting tournaments and competitions, and this is what we witnessed in Qatar’s organisation of the FIFA World Cup,” head of the Iraq Football Association (IFA) Haider Aufi told the local media.
Echoing similar sentiments, Basra Governor Asaad Al Eidani said: “It is a step forward to retain Iraq’s normal position in the fields of sport, culture and society.
“It is a message to the whole world that we are capable,” he added.
Iraq won the cup they hosted in 1979, ending Kuwait’s competitive hegemony, currently modeling with Ten gold titles. The Iraqi squad will contend in Group A against Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
In this year’s edition, Spanish coach Jesus Casas will lead his 23-man squad in hopes of giving it their best.
“We are proud to play in front of our fans and this will help us greatly. We hope that we will be as ambitious as the fans,” Jesus Casas said in a press conference on Thursday.
“We are aware of the importance of this tournament from the first moment, and we will spare no effort in giving our best,” the Spaniard added.
“Oman are tough side that also won the second last edition of the Gulf Cup. We studied their strengths and we will try to find the best way to confront.”