Soccer in Iraq has recently provided a distinct medium for cooperation between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. However, with the rise of ISIL and the increased efforts by the Kurdish leadership for an independent state, the Iraqi soccer world is spending its off-season in a state of “wait and see” as to the lasting repercussions of the latest events in a country already reeling from years of invasion, civil war, and political battles.
After making it to the 1986 World Cup, Iraq entered a dark period. Under the control Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, notorious for his torture of players when they failed to live up to his standards, Iraq failed to fulfill to the promise the World Cup squad had shown. Kurdish Journalist Zakaria Muhammad notes that Iraq possessed many talented players, notably Laith Hussain, said to have been offered a contract by Barcelona. However, it was the “psychology” and torture of Uday that kept the teams from performing, as well as Uday blocking transfers to foreign clubs as in the case of Hussain.
This changed dramatically with the fall of Saddam Hussein, as Iraq experienced what could be seen as a mini-footballing renaissance. Despite being forced to play games in neutral venues outside Iraq, the national team went on to win the West Asian Championship in 2002, and the Asian Football Championship in 2007, beating out traditional powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Since then the national team has failed to repeat that success, but remains a formidable squad.
It is political issues that have plagued Iraqi football in the past few years. The government's decision to disband the Iraqi Football Association (due to the FA having many ties to the old regime) garnered a one-year suspension from FIFA (though the issue was resolved, and Iraq reinstated). Now, the increasing instability of the country has forced the Iraqi domestic league to be cut short, with no champion declared.
With ISIL now controlling a vast swath of land, it might seem that a functioning football league would be out of the question. Yet, when superimposing a map of ISIL-controlled Iraq over a map of the Iraqi premier league, one quickly sees that ISIL in fact does not control any city with a top-level Iraqi team. The league consists entirely of teams from Baghdad, Kurdistan, and the south-east.
Author and Middle Eastern football expert James Dorsey believes that the Iraqi Football Association might well attempt to start the league as scheduled in the fall to “keep a facade of normalcy” though “If ISIS [ISIL] continues to enlarge its territory holding the premier league could be difficult.” Zakaria Muhammed agrees, pointing out that the new head of the Iraqi Football Assocation, Abdelhalliq Massoud, will be looking to hold the league as scheduled in order to assert his new leadership. Muhammad points out that if ISIL holds onto their positions, the Iraqi league may be split into North and South divisions, as has been done in the past. Despite that, even if the league does begin, he says that players may still leave the league for more visible and stable leagues in the Gulf and Iran.
In addition to the threat of ISIL, the Kurdish independence movement and upcoming referendum will also have logistical and long-term effects on Iraqi football. Kurdish clubs have risen prominently in the past decade, challenging the traditional powers of Baghdad for league championships. Up until 2005, only two teams from outside of Baghdad had ever won the championship of the premier league. Starting that year, an era of dominance commenced, with Erbil SC winning three straight championships, followed by fellow Kurdish club Duhok winning in 2009. Erbil has continued to play well, winning once more in 2011 and lying second in this years table before the cancellation of the league.
However, Kurdish triumph and participation in Iraqi football at large is tempered by Kurdish aspirations for independence. Clubs such as Kirkuk FC have struggled financially, as they believe they are being withheld funds in a political battle between Baghdad and the Kurdish government, Kirkuk being a disputed potential part of a Kurdish state.
Kurdistan has fielded its own national team in non-FIFA events since 2006. The majority of the team is drawn from the Kurdish clubs Erbil SC and Duhok of the Iraqi league. Some of the players, including Halgurd Mulla Mohammed, have represented both Iraq and Kurdistan at the international level. Kurdistan has intensified its lobbying of FIFA to hold full international friendlies, and have been bolstered by the success of Kosovo’s overtures to FIFA, as noted by James Dorsey.
Views towards the Iraqi league and the Iraqi national team vary in the Kurdish region. Iraq’s recent Under-22 team that featured not a single Kurdish player was met with far less jubilation than usual upon winning that age group’s Asian Championship. At the same time, Iraqis distinctly see the benefits and need for a diverse Iraqi team, with Iraqi football bloggers such as Hassanin Mubarak making the case for stars of Kurdish ancestry such as Jiloan Hamad, who currently plays for Sweden, to help unite support for Iraq’s national team by joining the squad.
Nonetheless, when asked what effect an independent Kurdistan would have on Iraqi soccer at large, Mubarak does not feel it would be catastrophic. He notes that even with the recent Kurdish club success “The best players from top [Kurdish] clubs Erbil, Duhok, Zakho and Sulimaniya all come from Baghdad or other regions in Iraq.”
Alongside aspirations for independence, Kurds are still deeply involved with the Baghdad-based Iraqi Football Association. Abdelhalliq Massoud, a Kurd, is the new head of the Iraqi Football Association, replacing Najih Hamoud, a former manager of the Iraqi national team, who had cosy relations to the previous regime. Massoud, who is still listed as deputy president of Erbil SC on their website, is said to be keen to see Kurdistan able to play international friendly matches against FIFA member nations, for instance in an upcoming tournament against sides such as Tunisia. Despite this newfound support, Zakaria Muhammad believes that full FIFA membership will most likely not be granted without Kurdistan becoming a fully independent state, which he feels will happen in the next five years or so.
After seeing football rise, triumph, and bring together a diverse base of the population, Iraqi soccer fans now sit in suspense. Whether the league starts in the fall, whether Kurdistan gains independence, whether ISIL continues to control land, Iraqi fans don’t seem alarmed or shocked. Rather, they appear in a state of accepting reality: that as the country deals with much larger issues of politics and violence, football will simply have to make do with the hand it is dealt.