Iraq’s battle for football control turns sectarian

Baghdad: Iraq is again dangerously close to being banned from international football for alleged government meddling in the leadership of Iraqi Football Association after armed men stormed into the headquarters last week waving arrest warrants.

The battle over who will lead Iraq’s most popular sport after an election set for Saturday has become a window into Iraq’s sectarian politics that has officials struggling to form a new government more than four months after inconclusive March elections.

The political bickering between the current Shiite prime minister and his Sunni-backed rival over who will lead the government has spilled over into Iraq’s football with the government backing Shiite candidate Falah Hassan against the Sunni incumbent Hussein Saeed.

The Shiite-dominated government has long wanted to purge Iraq’s sports association of any officials with alleged ties to the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein.

FIFA’s official rules say national football bodies must be independent, and as recently as last month it threatened to suspend France after President Nicolas Sarkozy made noises about reforming its own federation.

In the past two years, FIFA has suspended Iraq twice from international competition because of political interference. On Wednesday, football’s governing body warned that any governmental meddling in the association’s electoral process is ``subject to statutory measures which can include a suspension.’’

The warning came after men in military-style uniforms on Sunday raided the federation’s offices carrying arrest warrants for several of its officials, including Saeed, who lives in Jordan.

The government has stepped up the pressure to oust the 52-year-old Saeed from the presidency alleging the former striker for Baghdad’s al-Talaba club, who’s ranked 10th on FIFA’s list of players with most international matches played, has ties to former regime and is suspected of corruption.

Falah Hassan, a 60-year-old Shiite from Baghdad’s slum of Sadr City and a former captain of Iraq’s best team al-Zawra, is Saeed’s main rival for football’s top job in Iraq.

Although Falah’s international career pales in comparisons with Saeed’s, who comes from Baghdad’s fallen Sunni elite, Falah makes a much more appealing candidate in Iraq’s current political climate.

On Saturday, the two men will go head to head in the northern city of Irbil for the leadership of the federation.

Even the location of the election, chosen by FIFA, is controversial, however, with the government wanting it to be held in Baghdad, which it is trying to showcase as stable once more.

FIFA, however, deemed the capital too unsafe to send international observers and insisted it take place in the Kurdish autonomous region, which has largely been free of violence since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Tired of politics and conflict, Iraqis just want football to remain a game.

“It makes no difference where the election occurs and who is the president of the federation,” said Hassan Abdul Wahab, a 22-year-old student who plays football every evening on a makeshift field along the Tigris. “The important thing is not to be banned by FIFA and have a chance to play outside Iraq.”

While the national team enjoyed a memorable Asia Cup tournament in 2007, defeating Australia and South Korea and Saudi Arabia in the finals, the team has since struggled to beat even the weakest teams in the Middle East.

Earlier this month, Iraq’s national team signed Wolfgang Sidka, as a new coach to give it a much needed lift to defend the title early next year.

In May 2008, Iraq was suspended for several days after its government disbanded all national sports bodies, but the ban was lifted when the government assured FIFA that football was excluded from the decision.

Then in November FIFA banned Iraq from international competition after Iraq’s Olympic Committee dissolved the football association because of alleged financial and administrative irregularities and the repeated delaying of internal elections. The ban was only lifted in March.

Bureau Report

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