International football returning to Iraq

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After a years-long absence predominantly due to security concerns, international football will return to Iraq when the country hosts a second-round match of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.

Defending Cup champions Air Force Club and Al-Zawraa -- both Iraqi teams -- will face off at Franso Hariri Stadium in the autonomous Kurdish region's capital Arbil on Monday night for the first international match to be held in the country since 2013.

"I think this is an opportunity for us as fans and athletes to prove to the world that we deserve to hold matches on our soil," Al-Zawraa coach Essam Hamad told journalists in Arbil.

Basim Qasim, the Air Force Club's coach, also called for "completely lifting the ban on Iraqi football".

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Iraqis' passion for football cuts across the deep religious and political divisions that have fuelled horrific violence in t he country for years, and the country's national teams have brought people together amid some of the worst of the unrest.

Periodic bans

But world football's governing body FIFA and the AFC have periodically banned Iraq from hosting international matches, most recently in 2013 after a coach was killed by security forces.

Violence was rising, part of a multi-year crescendo of bloodshed that culminated in the Islamic State group's takeover of large areas north and west of Baghdad the following summer.

Among the targets of frequent jihadist attacks in 2013 were football pitches where Iraqi children played the sport and cafes broadcasting matches.

FIFA, which had just lifted a ban on Iraq hosting international friendlies a few months before, reimposed it and left it in place for nearly four years.

But FIFA again lifted the ban on international friendlies in Iraq earlier this month, while the AFC agreed to allow Iraq to host the match between Air Force and Al-Zawraa.

Three-month trial

Iraq will now go through a three-month trial period to see if it can host and organise matches according to international standards.

Security has not been the only problem for Iraqi football: issues such as inadequate electricity and fans going onto the football pitch have also been sources of concern.

Over the past two years, Iraqi forces have made major gains against jihadists, retaking three of the country's four cities that IS had seized.

Arbil has largely been spared the violence that has ravaged other parts of the country, but getting fans of the two Baghdad-based clubs to Arbil does pose a potential challenge.

Iraq's Kurdish region subjects citizens from other areas -- most of them members of the country's Arab majority -- to strict security screening that many of them consider discriminatory.

Iraq's Ministry of Youth and Sports announced that it would cover travel expenses for 1,000 fans from each of the two clubs, which have hired buses to trans port supporters to see the match.

"Staging the two matches between Al-Zawraa and Air Force in Iraqi stadiums will be important in proving Iraq’s capability to organise and host international matches with efficiency and safety," said Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, the head of the AFC.

"We are sure that this step will have a positive impact on the future of the game in the country."

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