MALAYSIA // Iraq can start hosting matches for its national team and club sides in Asian continental competitions after a decision announced yesterday by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The AFC cleared the city of Irbil to host matches, following the successful staging of a friendly between Iraq and the Palestinians there in April. Iraq had not played at home since 2002. The country sank into chaos after the US-led invasion in 2003, but has made gains in security after years of insurgent attacks and sectarian violence.
The Iraq Football Association had wanted the capital, Baghdad, and the city of Sulaimaniya to be used for matches too, but the decision by the AFC Executive Committee restricted the matches to Irbil. Baghdad hosted a friendly international, also against the Palestinians, on Monday, and the city's Shaab stadium, which holds about 45,000, was filled to bursting point with jubilant fans. "We will continue to press for the approval of the remaining two cities," the IFA president, Hussein Saeed, said on the AFC website. "Football plays an important role in the lives of the Iraqi people and they are waiting anxiously to watch their national team play the official international matches at home."
Despite the lack of home matches, Iraq qualified for and then won the 2007 Asian Cup, earning a spot at the recent Confederations Cup in South Africa. Irbil was announced as the host city for Group C in next year's AFC Under-19 Championship qualifiers. Iraq will contest the group with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, India and Afghanistan. The decision also comes in time for the Iraqi league champions Irbil, who will now host the second leg of their AFC Cup quarter-final against Kuwait Sports Club on Sept. 30.