The impact of Iraq’s heated political crises — which have taken on a sectarian dimension — is no longer limited to political circles and the popular protests seen in the squares of some Iraqi cities. It has reached sports stadiums as well, notably those of soccer, a popular sport in Iraq.
The media wars between supporters of various Iraqi teams — particularly between those representing Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces (Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah) and the rest of Iraq’s teams — was once limited to waving Kurdish flags instead of Iraqi flags and vice versa. However, the dispute has now devolved to the level of attacking political figures and leaders with whom the teams are associated, in a bid to provoke players and negatively influence their emotional state.
The delicacy of the situation has reached the level where Erbil SC, the champion of the Iraqi Premier League, threatened to withdraw from the league’s championship due to discriminatory sectarian chants made by fans in the stadium. This most recently occurred on March 14, 2013, during the game against Al Quwa Al Jawiya club, as noted in a statement issued by the club’s management.
The statement reads: “Following the game with Al Quwa Al Jawiya, the incidents that took place — when fans attacked the coach and players and made discriminatory and sectarian chants against our club, which negatively impacted coach Radan Casanin and his assistant Dalibor — and after deliberating with circles affiliated with soccer, the club has decided not to play matches in the Iraqi provinces in order to ensure its safety, given that neither security nor control are present in our sports stadiums.
“We ask the responsible parties to espouse the necessary measures to ensure that these incidents are not repeated, because they will tarnish the reputation of Iraqi soccer and harm the Iraqi Union’s efforts to bring back international games to Iraqi cities,” the statement added.
The Iraqi Premier League comprises the best clubs in the country. Additionally, the champion of this league participates in the AFC Champions League.
Erbil SC has been successful in the Iraqi Premier League in the past years and has also represented Iraq in Asian championships.
The Al Quwa Al Jawiya club denies these claims, emphasizing that it has no control over the actions of the fans. The club denied that players were threatened, reiterating that “their fans were reacting to the [the provocations] the club faced during its games in Erbil.”
Abbas Fadel, deputy head of the Al Quwa Al Jawiya club, said to Al-Monitor, “During our recent games in Erbil, the [Erbil] supporters attacked us as well. They smashed the windows of some cars and raised banners that read ‘Erbil is a Kurdish, not an Iraqi, city.’”
Fadel pointed out that what happened in Baghdad was a mere reaction to the incidents that took place earlier in Erbil, and no lives were threatened. “The fans of Al Jawiya raised banners that read ‘Erbil is an Iraqi city,’ but nothing dangerous took place. We consider these practices to be childish, whether they occur in Erbil or Baghdad, and they are not systematically or intentionally planned by the management of the club.”
Ribin Ramzi, the media director for Erbil SC, stressed that the attacks were not limited to Kurdish political figures and leaders, and have reached the level of threats against players’ lives, especially Arab players. They are considered traitors for playing with a club that represents the Iraqi Kurdistan region. All of this took place before the eyes of security forces and Iraqi Union officials.
He then added, “We have video footage showing the fans threatening Iraqi player Amjad Radi as they chanted, ‘Amjad must be killed,’ and ‘Erbil, Erbil must be killed.’ We repeatedly hear these threats.”
Ramzi said that the club will file a complaint to the Iraqi Union and the International Union “to protect ourselves, and our rights, from such acts. We are playing sports not practicing politics. We will file a complaint with the Iraqi and International Union, hoping that these incidents do occur again.”
Sports observers believe that the incidents happening in Iraqi stadiums are not related to the game; they are a reflection of the tense political situation that the country is in. The sectarian and discriminatory chants heard in Baghdad and other cities are not only aimed at Erbil, but other clubs as well.
Sports journalist Omar Sati believes that the solution is double-sided. Sati told Al-Monitor that the first part of the solution involves the Soccer Union banning fans who chant provocative statements from attending games, whether in Baghdad or other Iraqi cities, including Kurdish fans and whoever chants slogans that will destroy Iraqi soccer.
Sati points out that the second part of the solution involves raising awareness among Iraqi soccer fans. “Through the fan club of each soccer club, an awareness and edification process should be implemented so as to keep fans from chanting obscene and offensive expressions, or those that undermine the status of politicians, because politics and sports are two different things.”
Sati notes that these practices are rampant among sports fans, saying, “What is happening politically in Iraq has nothing to do with sports. If [problems] were left unsolved, some clubs will boycott or withdraw from the league. All of this will not serve the best interest of Iraqi soccer in the future.”
Sports journalist Erslan Abdullah noted that this was not the first time players have been attacked. “Post-2003, these kinds of occurrences emerged in Iraqi sports arenas. In past soccer seasons, the audience has attacked sports clubs,” he added.
“This is no longer a sports competition, it has been politically framed.”
It is worth noting that three Iraqi Kurdish clubs participate in the local premier league — Erbil SC and Dohuk, which are both taking part in the 10th edition of the AFC Champions League and are the most prominent clubs in the Iraqi Kurdistan region — in addition to Sulaymaniyah club.
Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in print and radio, he has published several reports in local and international media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).
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