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.
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