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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

'The time has come': Asia football boss wants Iraq back in full international fold after Basra successfully hosts Saudi Arabia match

AFC chief Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa has urged Fifa to end three-decade ban and allow Iraq to host competitive matches after seeing hosts beat Saudi Arabia 4-1 at the Basra Sports City Stadium

The Asian Football Confederation head on Wednesday called for Iraq to be allowed to host competitive international matches, as Fifa gears up to decide on whether to lift a ban on the strife-torn nation.

"The time has come" to end the three-decade-long ban, AFC chief Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa told a news conference at the stadium in the southern city of Basra ahead of an international friendly in which Iraq beat Saudi Arabia 4-1.

Saudi Arabia have reached this year's World Cup finals in Russia, while Iraq, who played many of their "home" qualifying games in Tehran, narrowly missed out.

Sheikh Salman says Fifa should come and see for themselves that Iraq is ready to host matches safely.

"We ask Fifa to take this decision and we invite Fifa's leaders to come and watch matches in Iraq," he said.

Iraq prime minister Haider Al Abadi echoed Sheikh Salman's call for reinstatement in a tweet sent after the match.

"Thanks to all those who made today’s game in Basra a success and congratulations to our national team on their victory," he said. "Our thanks to the Saudi team, staff and officials who attended and supported this match. Now we ask Fifa to restore competitive fixtures in Iraq, we are ready."

Gianni Infantino who is president of world football's governing body Fifa was invited by Iraq's football authorities but did not travel to Basra for the match.

Fifa is due to decide on March 16 whether to lift the ban preventing Iraq from hosting competitive international matches.

The country has not played full internationals on home turf ever since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait that sparked an international embargo.

The ban, covering all but domestic matches, stayed in place after the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

It was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during an Iraq-Jordan match in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil led Fifa to promptly reinstate it.

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Iraq in December declared victory over ISIL and Fifa finally relaxed the ban, allowing international friendlies in Basra, Karbala, south of Baghdad, and in Arbil.

Among the excited home supporters in the 60,000-capacity stadium, several of them draped in the Iraqi flag and some carrying drums, Abbas Hakim, 20, said he travelled more than three hours with a group of friends to see the match.

"Iraq is playing a strong team ... I must be here when we win," he said ahead of the game.

Hossam Nasser covered the 500 kilometres (300 miles) from Baghdad. "The whole world will be watching this match," said the 23-year-old student.