After decades of war, invasions and instability, Iraq hosts the eight-nation Gulf Cup starting on Friday for the first time since 1979. For the country’s soccer officials and government, success off the field will be a bigger prize than success on it.
The national teams, all from West Asia and split into two groups of four, will converge on the southern port city of Basra. If the 25th edition of the tournament progresses smoothly then it could encourage FIFA to allow World Cup qualifiers to return to Baghdad, which has not hosted a competitive international since before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion due to concerns over the security situation in the city.
In the past two decades just two qualifiers have taken place in the country: against Jordan in Erbil in 2011 and Hong Kong in Basra eight years later. All other competitive games involving the national team have been played in countries such as Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Baghdad was scheduled to host a 2022 World Cup qualifier against United Arab Emirates on March 24 last year but after a missile attack on Erbil 11 days before the game was to be played, the venue was switched to Saudi Arabia.
A successful Gulf…