An the end, the Iraqis were able to celebrate. They spilled onto the streets on Friday night, praising the ‘Lions of Mesopotamia’ – their national soccer team, which had won the Gulf Cup final against Oman in injury time. “The trophy is Iraqi, our lions are our pride,” Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani wrote on Twitter. There, the ruler of Dubai, Muhammad bin Raschid Al Maktoum, congratulated: “We are all Iraqis in luck, we are all Iraqis in victory.”
A willpower that ultimately leads to victory would have been the perfect end to the football tournament in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, which was celebrated as historic from the start and as the starting signal for a better future. However, on Thursday morning, the morning of the final, a fatal tragedy struck and cast a shadow over the tournament. A fan was killed in a crowd in front of the stadium. A twenty-something from Baghdad, as his brother confirmed in the Arab press.
Thousands had made their way to the stadium at an early hour. Videos circulating online showed people screaming for help as the crowd pushed them helplessly along. By the time the stadium gates opened to ticket holders to take the pressure off, it was too late.
The governor of Basra, Asaad al-Eidani, had previously warned of just such an incident. He had strongly discouraged fans, especially those without a ticket, from gathering in front of the stadium. “It could lead to stampede and the perfect image that our country presented as a host could be tarnished,” he said. The Ministry of the Interior had also asked the football-loving population to celebrate in a “civilized” way and to refrain from celebrating with shots in the air.
Hosting the tournament was a big deal for Iraq, just after the first World Cup hosted by an Arab country, which had boosted the profile of the Qatari hosts in the region and sparked a new pan-Arabism in football. Iraq had long been avoided as a venue – because the country was ruled by the tyrant Saddam Hussein and after his overthrow in the wake of the 2003 American invasion it descended into chaos. The Golf Cup was last held in Iraq in 1979. Sudani had said the tournament showed “brotherhood” among Arab Gulf countries.
The fact that such tones aroused displeasure in the abusive neighbor Iran already shows that the Golf Cup has unfolded symbolic power beyond football. Sudani had used the official tournament title “Arabian Gulf Cup”, which even led to the Iraqi ambassador in Tehran being summoned. The Iranian regime has had an allergic reaction to the word “Arabian Gulf”, which is often used by its Arab regional adversaries. Iran, which rules a network of influential politicians and heavily armed proxies in Iraq, values the Persian Gulf designation.