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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Iraqi-Saudi friendly match aims to lift Fifa embargo

The war-torn country has not hosted competitive international football matches for almost all of the last 30 years

Iraqi Minister of Youth and Sport Abdul Hussein Abtan is pictured at the Najaf International Stadium on February 8, 2018. Haidar Hamdani / AFP
Iraqi Minister of Youth and Sport Abdul Hussein Abtan is pictured at the Najaf International Stadium on February 8, 2018. Haidar Hamdani / AFP

Iraq will host a football match against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for the first time in almost four decades.

It come as Baghdad tries to have a ban lifted on competitive international matches being played in Iraq.

The war-torn country has not hosted competitive international football matches for almost all of the last 30 years — ever since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait triggered an international embargo.

With a friendly encounter between the Iraqi and Saudi national teams in the southern city of Basra, Baghdad hopes to strengthen its case for Fifa — football's world governing body — to lift the ban.

“Iraq has undergone great changes and will continue this year due to achievements that the government has made,” said Abdul Hussein Abtan, the Iraqi Minister of Youth and Sport.

Mr Abtan said he believed the match “will pave the way to lifting Fifa's embargo imposed on Iraqi stadiums”.

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For Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, the match on Wednesday is part of increasing diplomatic and economic ties with post-Saddam Iraq, while also countering Iran's influence in the country.

Locals in Basra have launched a Twitter campaign aimed at welcoming Saudi Arabia's footballers to Iraq called "Greens, it's your homeland" — a reference to one of the nicknames for the Saudi team which plays in a green strip.

"The match has an international significance, as Saudi Arabia is one of the most important football teams in the region. Football matches have the ability to improve relations between our two countries," Sameer Ahmed, a 24-year-old football fan said on Twitter.

The ban on competitive international matches being played in Iraq stayed in place even after the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

It was briefly lifted in 2012, but a power outage during a match against Jordan in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil led Fifa to reinstate it.

However, since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi declared victory against ISIL in December last year, Fifa has allowed friendly international matches to take place in Basra and the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

Iraq was supposed to host a four-country friendly tournament in Karbala next month but this is now down to a three-country competition after Kuwait pulled out.

Baghdad has implemented measures to improve security during football matches by banning weapons and renovating the country’s stadiums.

The government has also invited the president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, to visit the country, but no decision has yet been taken about whether he will accept.

Wednesday's match comes just over two years after Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad. It also follows a rare visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir to Baghdad in February last year, as well as the reopening of the Arar border crossing and the resumption of regular flights between the two countries last year.

Relations between Riyadh and Baghdad have been limited since the 1991 Iraq invasion of Kuwait, though they began to thaw after 2003.