The Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Sept. 10 Algerian Ambassador Abdelkader Benchaa over the chants glorifying former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during an Arab Club Champions Cup match between Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya soccer club and the Algerian club USM Alger.
About 15 minutes before the end, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, which had conceded two goals at this point, withdrew from the match, which took place in the Algerian capital Algiers. The Iraqi team justified its decision to withdraw because of the chants by the Algerian fans glorifying Saddam and hailing the Islamic State (IS), according to the head of Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya’s fan association known as "Abu Burier."
Responding to the incident, Turki al-Sheikh, president of the Union of Arab Football Associations, spoke of potentially imposing fines on both teams up to $2.5 million, but he said Sept. 13 in statements to the press that he “refuses to overemphasize what occurred in that match.” He also refused to “make the association that this tournament is a source of trouble,” adding that “each tournament has regulations and laws that shall be enforced on all.”
The crisis imploded further as some claimed that the chants hailed IS and attacked the Shiites, in addition to glorifying Saddam. This caused an outcry among Iraqis who called on the Iraqi state to take action rather than only releasing statements of condemnation.
Videos of the match, however, show that no “sectarian” chants were shouted, as some had claimed, but simply fans chanted “God is Great. Saddam Hussein.”
Being unaware of the developments in Iraq since 2003, there are still many Arabs who regard Saddam as an Arab “hero” who fell victim to a conspiracy that took down his regime. Most Iraqis, on the other hand, take issue with this as they want to end the glorification of the late president.
Following the match, Abdul Khaliq Masood, head of the Iraqi Football Association and vice president of the Union of Arab Football Associations, threatened to resign from his latter post unless the Algerian Football Federation apologizes for what he called "racist slurs" against the Iraqi club.
Just a few hours after the match, the state-funded Iraqi Media Network reported that they would boycott coverage of Algerian clubs if Algeria does not publicly apologize for the “affront” by its fans.
In an attempt to quench the public uproar, Benchaa spoke to the press about the Algerian clubs’ problems with “verbal violence,” stressing that “those insults do not represent Algerians or the Algerian state.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Anas Jumaa, an Algerian writer and media personality, said, “The crisis has been blown out of proportion because of its political implications. It is not unusual for Algerian fans to use political chants — some of which are against the Algerian regime and cultural and youth figures in light of the heated nature of the sport and the excitable youth.”
“Summoning the Algerian ambassador in Baghdad was not a smart decision,” he said. “It was part of internal political grudges. The Iraqi club should not have withdrawn from the match, because these chants do not represent the [Algerian] people and the state’s official position.”
On the other hand, some Iraqi soccer officials were clearly upset. Kamel Zghair, a member of the Iraqi Football Association and the head of Al-Hussain Sport Club in Sadr City, Baghdad, who saw a connection between the political crisis and IS, pointed out that “most IS affiliates who entered Iraq were Algerians.”
Zghair told the press Sept. 10, “We are tired of the Arabs who wish Iraq an ill-fate. Yes, they revere Saddam Hussein because he was their livelihood."
Walid al-Zaydi, vice president of the administrative committee at Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, appeared in a video from inside the stadium, where he said, “You win some and lose some, but the fans who chanted against the Shiites are no better than them, and are not better than Iraqis. If anything, this reflects their barbarism.”
Mustafa Beraf, head of the Algerian Olympic Committee, opted to alleviate the tension and took a friendlier approach to the Iraqis by apologizing, stressing that he supports the Algerian Football Federation’s position, which apologized to its Iraqi counterpart. “The chants shouted out by the crowd do not represent the Algerian athletes,” he said.
Currently, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya is preparing a complaint to be submitted to the Union of Arab Football Associations over the “sectarian chants” and what happened after the match, as the club’s bus was encircled so the players could not leave until after the Algerian security forces intervened.
Social media in Iraq was flooded with opinions over what happened, which were mostly reactive, heavily slamming Algeria and the Algerians.
Some social media pages affiliated to USM Alger apologized to the Iraqis in a message that read, “Saddam Hussein is a hero to many. We didn’t mean to offend you and we didn’t use any sectarian slogans.”
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