For the first time since 1979, Iraq is hosting a major world event – the 25th Arab Gulf Cup.
To say that Iraq has been devastated in recent years would be an understatement. The Middle Eastern nation, proudly crowned as the cradle of civilization, has suffered for decades from the consequences of a brutal dictatorship, crippling international sanctions, years of destructive war and gun violence followed by corruption and corruption. ‘widespread governmental ineptitude.
Given this recent traumatic history, seeing Iraq finally celebrated internationally is the feel-good factor the nation craves, especially on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the states’ invasion of Iraq. States – a war that has killed and counts hundreds of thousands, displaced millions and sparked instability across the region.
For years, Iraq has become synonymous with war both in popular culture and in the media around the world. As an Iraqi who grew up in the West, I would rarely see people from my background reflected positively in the media. Films such as The Hurt Locker and American Sniper glorified the killing of Iraqi civilians and amplified the stereotype that all Iraqis were waiting to detonate bombs or fire shots.
It wasn’t until 2007 that I and Iraqis around the world finally had something to celebrate, something that helped forge a collective identity. And all thanks to football.
In the midst of one of Iraq’s worst years in terms of human death toll, with former US President George Bush’s “troop influx” as a backdrop, the Lions of Mesopotamia – the men’s national team of Iraq – managed, against all odds, to triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup.
Almost overnight, this football-obsessed nation came together as war was halted and sectarian divisions were deemed futile. With the stroke of a brush, the national team was able to show how football transcends mere entertainment.
Then in 2018, FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, lifted a three-decade ban on Iraq from hosting international matches, acknowledging the country’s move towards very, very stable fragile. The move paved the way for the country to host the Arab Gulf Cup this month in Basra, finally bringing joy to the fractured nation.
For decades, tourists were either afraid to visit Iraq or simply couldn’t, with the country’s borders closed due to a series of no-fly zones. But the reality is that Iraq has made progress in recent years.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it is the 6th fastest growing economy in the world. Shopping malls and restaurants have spread across the country, with tourist destinations comparable to other Gulf countries. Baghdad has not seen a car bomb attack since 2021, a stark departure from the near-daily attacks that rocked the city in the not-so-distant past. This improved security has enabled Iraq to safely welcome religious tourists, with 21 million people descending on Karbala for this year’s Arbaeen.
By welcoming Arabs from the rest of the Gulf, Iraq is sharing its culture with its neighbors for the first time in decades. Tourists, including sports presenter Meshal Shaker, have already praised Iraqi hospitality.
The recent World Cup in Qatar showed how powerful sport can be in sharing cultures across the world. By hosting the biggest sporting event in the world, Qatar was able to challenge stereotypes about Arabs and fight Islamophobia, as people from all corners of the world descended on the country.
Iraq too can change people’s perceptions as it welcomes its neighbors across the Gulf. Much like Qatar’s release of several songs for the World Cup, Iraq have also released a plethora of tracks for this winter’s tournament, all themed around welcoming their neighbors after years of absence. , with Bassam Mahdi’s song declaring, “The country misses its brothers. in reference to its Gulf neighbors. It’s a huge departure from Hussam al-Rassam’s viral 2007 song with powerful lyrics reflecting the war: “Have you ever seen a player in the stadium playing with his hands over his wounds. He’s our Iraqi player; in devastation, he brought us joy.
Morocco’s success at the World Cup has shown the power of football in the region and the unity it has brought across the Arab world. When an Arab team wins, all Arabs succeed. However the Iraqi national team performs in Basra this month, the Arab world must come together to help the country heal from its recent wounds.
Certainly, it is important to recognize that these wounds persist. In the form of widespread political corruption and a lack of basic infrastructure. In a housing crisis that has left 3.2 million Iraqis living in informal settlements and lack of drinking water in Basra. In a failing health sector that continues to cost lives.
Yet Basra hosting the Arabian Gulf Cup finally shows the world that Iraqis, like their peers in other countries, have always wanted to be able to celebrate life. For millions of Iraqis, this is the country’s moment in the footballing sun as it emerges from the shadow of the war in which it has been lost for so long.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.