Hussein Said, chairman of the now dissolved football association of Iraq
It is a story that has been simmering in Iraqi media for months but because of its superficial appearance as a “sports issue” it has not attracted much in the way of international attention. However, since the Iraqi Olympic committee yesterday decided to dissolve the Iraqi football association, there has been growing realisation that the decision also has certain political ramifications.
At heart of the issue is the question of internal elections in the football association. The Iraqi government has been eager to replace the current members, many of whom were sports stars during the previous regime. This is also part of a general tendency in the “new Iraq” to subject civil society and NGOs to government control or semi-control – a tendency of “politicisation” that the football association has vocally protested. However, unlike many other civil society players in Iraq, the football association has the rare asset of an effective international patron that is still prepared to criticise the Maliki government – the international football association or FIFA – and for a long time was able to delay the elections. Iraq now faces the prospect of political sanctions due to its actions, and there have been delays to the commencement of the annual league.
There are clear political dimensions to the case. Maliki allies like Ali al-Adib and the minister of sports have played prominent roles in the onslaught on the football association, also employing the full weight of the sports bureaucracy that has gradually come under government control, including the Olympic committee (previously another bastion of resistance until its membership was changed in 2008) and the sports association. That said, with a couple of exceptions, so far the issue has yet to excite open conflict along party lines inside Iraq. Last August, however, there was talk about another ex-footballer, Ahmad Radi, wanting to run as candidate for head of the football association, which was seen as a possible challenge to the government line (Radi used to be a Tawafuq MP but joined Iraqiyya in mid-October). As for the Iraqi football clubs, their reactions have ranged from enthusiastic support for the government (including demonstrations in favour of dissolution) to somewhat more diplomatic comments from clubs in Mosul and Kirkuk. However, much of the opposition media and especially some of those channels that also cater for exile audiences (for example Baghdadiyya and Sharqiyya) have highlighted the political aspects.
The detractors of the football association say its members had too close ties to the former regime, including allegations about links to Saddam Hussein’s unpopular son, Uday. To many others, these are Iraqis who like millions of others simply found a way of surviving under the Baath. Through alienating this important segment of the Iraqi population with hardliner anti-Baath rhetoric that pretends a big and important segment of the Iraqi population does not exist, Maliki risks undermining the very nationalist credentials that he has sought to develop over the past year.