BASRA: Iraq on Friday welcomed football teams from across the region for the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup (Khaleeji Zain 25), ending nearly three decades of repeated bans on international matches in the country. The tournament in the southern city of Basra brings together eight teams. HH the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah sent Friday a cable of congratulations to Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani and Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid on the successful inauguration of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup in Basra. HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al-Sabah also sent congratulatory cables to the Iraqi leaders.
But the opening ceremony was marred after security personnel failed to control stampeding crowds, which forced Kuwait’s delegation to withdraw from the ceremony for safety reasons. Kuwait’s team will still participate in the tournament after receiving assurances from Iraqi officials to protect their safety, Kuwait Football Association confirmed.
Iraq Football Association (IFA) expressed Saturday its regret to the Kuwaiti delegation for being unable to attend the inauguration ceremony of the Gulf Cup due to the stampede that occurred in front of the stadium in Basra. In a statement, the association expressed its great sorrow over some incidents during the inauguration ceremony.
Head of IFA Adnan Darjal apologized to the Kuwaiti delegation for obstacles that prevented it from entering the stadium, forcing Sheikh Fahad Al-Nasser, representative of HH the Amir and head of the Kuwaiti Olympic Committee, and head of Kuwait Football Association and members to leave. Darjal voiced sorrow over the stampede, stressing that IFA and those responsible for organizing the event will take into consideration to put all things in good shape.
What has happened will not affect the deep-rooted relations between Iraq and Kuwait, he affirmed, also noting that Kuwait Football Association greatly supported holding the championship in Basra. He urged fans to continue providing the necessary support to make the championship successful, which will help the country host sports events after a long period of suspension.
Later on Saturday, Iraqi Interior Minister Abdul-Amir Al-Shammari said Prime Minister Sudani directed a comprehensive probe into and analysis of all incidents that accompanied the opening ceremony of the Gulf Cup. Shammari held several meetings with governor of Basra, commanders of Basra operations and other security leaders to review all matters and find solutions to them, according to Iraqi News Agency.
Shammari noted that the ministry of interior conducted a complete reorganization of the security plan and review of traffic to and from the stadiums. Shammari referred to the reinforcement of the stadium’s security force from Baghdad, pledging incidents that happened at the tournament’s opening ceremony will never be repeated in the upcoming matches.
More than 10,000 foreign fans had arrived by the afternoon in Basra, located a short distance from Iraq’s borders with Kuwait and Iran, an official from Basra’s provincial government told AFP. Flags of the participating countries fluttered in the breeze at Basra’s corniche, which runs along the Shatt al-Arab river, and the scent of shisha wafted from coffee shops.
Omar Badr, a 22-year-old from Kuwait, was enthused by the local hospitality. He said some restaurants have offered fans free meals “and people invite us to their homes”. Teams from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen have all arrived in town. It is the first time Iraq hosts the regional competition since 1979, the same year Saddam Hussein seized power in Baghdad.
Decades of turmoil followed with the 1980-1988 war against Iran, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a bloody sectarian civil war lasting from 2006 to 2008. The invasion of Kuwait saw Iraq banned by FIFA, world football’s governing body, and subsequent sporadic bans were imposed until early 2022 due to instability in the country.
Three decades after the Kuwait invasion, Iraqis are now enthusiastically welcoming their neighbors. Mohammed Al-Azemi, a 39-year-old football fan from Kuwait, said “social and family ties” unite the two countries. “The brotherly relationship between (us)… is back on track.” Louay Mansour, a nurse from Basra, said: “God be praised, the Gulf Cup is back. We hope it will be crowned with success.”
Tournament organizers have undertaken major infrastructure projects to help Iraqis forget their years in the football wilderness. Basra is now home to two stadiums: the 65,000-capacity International Stadium, opened in 2013, and the 30,000-seat Minaa Olympic Stadium, inaugurated just two weeks before the tournament. The city has had a makeover, with renovations to the corniche, new hotels built and streets repaved. In total, Baghdad allocated $33 million to the Iraq Football Association to organize the Gulf Cup. – Agencies