BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi received a delegation from the Spanish Real Madrid Club March 21 to discuss joint sports projects in Iraq. The delegation’s visit was welcomed by not only Iraq’s sports and political elites, but also by the Iraqi people, known for their love for soccer and their enthusiasm for La Liga, Spain's professional soccer league.
Iraqis have set up a Real Madrid Football Fan Association in Iraq and last year, the Espanyol Football Club from Barcelona opened its own soccer academy in Baghdad with Iraqi coaches. The academy participated in this month's youth Black Sea Cup in Russia.
Real Madrid is well aware of its big fan base in Iraq. On March 22, the delegation met with children of the people who died in the bombing that targeted two events for the club's fans in 2006 and 2016 in Baghdad, Tikrit and Diyala.
On May 30, 2016, 16 Real Madrid fans were killed in an attack by the Islamic State at a coffee shop in the town of Baqubah in Diyala, north of Baghdad. Real Madrid mourned its supporters in a statement on the club’s official website.
During the visit, the head of the Real Madrid delegation spoke of “projects in Iraq, including the establishment of schools for Iraqi children, the formation of a soccer school and the opening of a Real Madrid Academy.” He added, “We carry a message from the team’s captain Sergey Ramos to the Iraqis and an important message to the children of Iraq.”
The president of the Real Madrid Fan Association in Iraq, Ziad al-Baydani, shared Spanish newspaper coverage of the delegation’s visit on Facebook. Baydani told Al-Monitor in a phone call, “One of the most significant outcomes of this visit was to invite the children of the martyred supporters who will get to meet the club’s members.” He noted, “There has been coordination with the Spanish Consulate in Baghdad for the issuance of visas and the organization of a program during the visit.”
Baydani stressed the “Iraqi fans’ loyalty to the club, especially those who suffered from terrorism, which casts its shadow over sports too.” He also noted that a Real Madrid delegation will “attend the inauguration of al-Zawra Stadium in Baghdad, slated for early 2020. The delegation visited the location and was briefed on its activities and role in Iraqi soccer.”
Sports relations between Iraq and Spain look promising. Iraqi soccer player Naim Saddam, the technical adviser to the Real Madrid Academy in Iraq, told Al-Monitor, “The meeting between the Iraqi government and the Spanish club resulted in the agreement to establish a sports academy for the development of soccer in Iraq.”
“The purpose of the academy transcends sports to cultural aspirations and goals, to promote communication, cooperation and harmony between peoples and to uphold an academic approach to the study of soccer in Iraq,” he added.
Saddam noted, “One of the reasons for the success of the project is that Real Madrid is keen to develop athletic talent in Iraq, especially soccer. The club has a clear idea of the extent of the game’s popularity in the country, not to mention the Iraqi football achievements at the regional level.”
He noted, “The Iraqi government has already approved the establishment of the academy, which means the project will be soon underway.”
Although the project’s specifics and details have yet to be revealed, Saddam said, “Judging from the club’s previous schools in other countries, we can expect to have a group of highly qualified teachers and trainers in Baghdad’s academy. The curricula will be in line with the club’s standard programs.”
Diyar Berwari, a member of the parliamentary committee for sports and youth, told Al-Monitor, “Cooperation plans with international clubs are in Iraq's interest, allowing an exchange of experience and expertise among Iraqi youth and trainers. It is the duty of the government to provide the security, stability and investment facilities necessary for the sports projects, or these opportunities risk being squandered.”
Yet there are fears that the project might hit a dead end, as happened in the Kurdistan Region in 2012. The region’s Ministry of Youth signed with Real Madrid to open four sports academies that never saw the light of day due to “the lack and misuse of funds and the war on IS,” according to a Kurdish sources who talked to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
These concerns are further fueled by the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sports' skepticism toward the delegation, saying March 26, “The purpose of the visits is unknown and ambiguous.” The league replied March 27, “The ministry needs a minister with a professional mindset and free from sectarianism,” a clear indication that the project could go down the drain over political differences.
The project also promises to help promote professional soccer education and training and strengthen Iraq’s sports relations with the world, not to mention that such a project would catch global media attention and attract the investment needed for infrastructure development.
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