The key events of the 2000s – the millennium celebrations, the events of 11th September 2011, the attempted US remodelling of the Greater Middle East, the emergence of the BRICIS – seem, from some perspectives at least, a long time ago. Many of the key protagonists of that era have moved on, either in this world (Tony Blair, Jiang Zemin) or the next (Ahmad Shah Massoud, Osama bin Laden). The Iraq War – particularly to many observers outside of the Middle East – may seem to be an artifact from the increasingly distant past, commencing as it did way back on 20th March 2003.
It may therefore come as a genuine surprise to many that the best part of a decade after the official beginning of hostilities in Iraq, the country is still not safe to host international football matches: tomorrow is the deadline for the Iraqi Football Association to notify FIFA of the neutral venue in Asia where they wish to hold their remaining 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2012 Summer Olympic Games preliminary matches.
This is an especially sobering development because it represents a clear backwards step in the country’s reintegration into the wider world. For virtually all of the period since 2003, the Iraqi national team have been forced to play ‘home’ matches at a number of stadia outside Iraq’s borders, engendering matches played in eerie atmospheres in glistening, virtually empty arenas in Qatar and the UAE, as well as more colourful encounters elsewhere in the region. Indeed, since 2003 Iraq have only played two competitive home games – the most recent of which was the World Cup qualifier against Jordan on 2nd September 2011 - within Iraqi territory; moreover, even this tie was not hosted, as one would expect, in Baghdad, but instead in Arbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan and a settlement closer to the Turkish border than the capital of Iraq.
What makes this peripatetic existence doubly depressing is that Iraq are one of the finest teams in West Asia: a team replete with talents such as holding midfielder Nashat Akram (refused a work permit for a transfer to Manchester City in the summer of 2007), tricky winger Hawar Mulla Mohammed (the first Iraqi to play in the UEFA Champions League) and goal machine Younis Mahmoud should arguably have achieved far more than even their incredible attainments to date in the twenty-first century: a run to fourth place in the 2004 Summer Olympics followed by a miraculous sequence of results in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup which saw the Iraqis crowned champions of their continent.
Presently coached by Brazilian legend Zico – formerly boss of the Japanese national football team, Fenerbahçe, CSKA Moscow and Bunyodkor – Iraq clearly have the technical expertise both on and off the field to make a big impression in the remaining eleven months of the Seleção icon’s contract. But circumstances beyond even Zico’s control may sabotage his charges’ attempts to make the impression they are capable of on forthcoming international tournaments.