Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The New Football Association and the Politics of Sport in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 18 June 2011 20:45

Ever since the beginning of the war in 2003, Iraqi football has provided an interesting contrast to Iraqi politics. For one thing, Paul Bremer’s aggressive de-Baathification campaign somehow failed to make an impact on the football union, thanks not least to some of its leading figures enjoying support in powerful international sports circles like FIFA. As a result, Hussein Said, a former star player frequently accused of close links to Saddam Hussein’s notorious son Uday, was able to win the position as head of the Iraqi football union in 2004 and stayed on in this position for six years. Secondly, the successful football team itself proved something of an antidote to the prevailing tendency among Iraq’s post-2003 politicians to divvy up positions on the basis of ethno-sectarian affiliation instead of looking to talent and merit. The Iraqi football team that did spectacularly well in 2007 featured players from all kinds of Iraqi social and ethnic background, but the composition of the team never represented any kind of proportional formula.

Today’s election of a new leadership for the Iraqi football union – postponed repeatedly on political grounds since 2009 – serves as an indicator that there are still some differences between politics and sport in Iraq, but also increasingly some similarities.

The new president of the union, Najeh Hamud, comes from Najaf and is mostly described as a “Shiite” although he has never made a big point of his sectarian affiliation. Until quite recently, he was frequently criticised on Shiite Islamist websites for his alleged past Baath ties, but during the past year or so some kind of personal conflict is said to have evolved between him and the previous president of the football union, Hussein Said, who is a Sunni, and whom Hamud served as a deputy. There has even been talk of backing by the Shiite clergy for Hamud, who secured promises of support from many of the representatives of clubs in the Shiite-majority areas during the past weeks. These developments –  along with the fact that just last week Said finally resigned from the presidency he had held since 2004 – could in themselves perhaps be seen as constituting some kind of sectarian dynamic similar to the one seen in the Iraqi army and the state bureaucracy more generally, where Shiites with past Baathist ties have become quite preponderant as a support base for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Another candidate with a Sunni background, Ahmad Radi (who once was part of Tawafuq but later became an Iraqiyya member) also withdrew just hours before today’s election.

But things are not all that clear-cut in football it seems. True, Abd al-Khaliq Masud, a Kurd, ran unopposed as first deputy of the new president in what seemed to be an echo of the politics of ethno-sectarian spoils or muhasasa.  But the main opponent of Najeh Hamud today was actually another Shiite, Fallah Hassan, who comes from Sadr City. (Reports say Hamud got 45 votes and Hassan around 25.) And the second deputy to the new president is also a Shiite, Sharar Haydar, who at one point accused Hussein Said for playing the sectarian card (i.e. Said’s Sunnism) for holding on to the presidency.

In this way, Iraqi football continues to exhibit certain contrasts to Iraqi politics, and today’s developments in particular encapsulate the dilemma of the Iraqiyya party, which professes Iraqi nationalism but is increasingly seen as Sunni-supported: Some will no doubt see today’s developments as some kind of “Sunni marginalization”, whereas others will see the absence of an ethno-sectarian quota-sharing formula as basis for the election as something positive and liberating.

8 Responses to “The New Football Association and the Politics of Sport in Iraq”

  1. Jason said

    I’m sorry to be off topic, but this writer and several commenters claim that a Syrian implosion will likely lead to a massive Sunni-Shia civil war that drags in all of its neighbors. Please comment on the danger to Iraq if this happens. Would Iraqis get dragged in on opposing sides?

  2. Reidar Visser said

    That’s certainly off-topic but there is a parallel to the politics of Iraqi sport: The complexity of the situation on the ground once one moves beyond the simplistic cliches that dominate in the mainstream media. For example, it is true that the Syrian regime is dominated by Alawites, but it wouldn’t have been able to survive had it not been for a degree of continued support from Sunni middle class elements in Damascus. Similarly, when it comes to the Iraqi factor, it is true that some figures in Anbar have begun calling for regime change in Syria in what would seem to be an example of sectarian solidarity similar to the recent Alawite-Sunni clashes in Tripoli in Lebanon. But then again there are other tendencies that point in different directions. After all, Syria has remained a source of support for at least some of the opposition exiles with ties to the Iraqi Baath. Would these people really prefer some kind of Sunni Islamist regime in Damascus?

  3. Salah said

    Syria has remained a source of support for at least some of the opposition exiles with ties to the Iraqi Baath.

    In same talk’n Syria was hosted most iraqi opposition to tyrant regime for years, would those groups who are in power in today iraq really prefer syrian Alawites to go?

    Some sources saying sadar fighters are in syria fighting beside Assad?

  4. I had thought on balance that Iraq’s bureaucracy (such as Iraqi police and army leadership) was starting to become more Sunni in character.

    This news sounds discouraging..

  5. Reidar Visser said

    Encouraging news would be a situation in which Western commentators found themselves unable to assign any kind of sectarian “character” to the Iraqi state bureaucracy!

  6. bks said

    Almost there, Reidar, but perhaps not in the manner you would prefer. To a first approximation, western commentators have stopped commenting about Iraq altogether.


  7. Reidar Visser said

    The diminishing volume of Western punditry on Iraq might actually have the potential benefit of the Iraqis finding back to themselves!

    Here is an interesting story in Al-Mada that suggests there was considerable government (Maliki) support for the losing candidate in the football union vote, Fallah Hasan, through the ministry of sports & youth. If this is correct, it could be a healthy sign inasmuch as that Najeh Hamud, in an essentially intra-Shiite struggle but with the support of at least some of the Kurds and Sunni Arabs, would have actually managed to outmaeouvre the candidate with the most government support.

  8. Salah said

    Looks Iraqi flag having push Iranian nerve…

    لعلم العراقي يثير أزمة في ستاد آزادي ومدرب إيران يحذر من مشكلة سياسية !!.

    This article worth reading
    No political gain in Iraqi football – so leave the players well alone

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: