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Football in Iraq begins new era

  • Story Highlights
  • Iraq football fans celebrate first international match in Baghdad since 2003
  • Plans for a new international stadium for 21st Gulf Cup in Basra are revealed
  • Expert Simon Freeman warns of overplaying significance of the fixture
  • Iraq FA president confirms the return of national team matches to Arbil
By Timothy Abraham
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When the final whistle blew after Iraq's 4-0 win over Palestine at the Al-Shaab Stadium it was abundantly clear this was not just any international friendly.

Iraq's Ala Abdel Zahra is overcome with emotion after scoring in the 4-0 victory over Palestine.

Iraq's first international match in Baghdad was a special moment for the country's football fans.

Supporters spilled out on to the streets to celebrate not just the goals from Hawar Mullah Mohammed, Karrar Jasim, Ala Abdel Zahra and Emad Mohammed, but the fact Iraq had staged their first international match in Baghdad since 2002.

Iraq fan Sadiq Alwohal believes it was a poignant moment in the history of the game in the country. To put it simply; football in Iraq had come home.

Alwohal fled Baghdad for England 14 years ago to pursue his love of football, where he eventually found work as a coach in London.

He now runs the Football for Change program which, among other projects, has set up soccer schools in post-war Iraq.

"It is really special day that we are able to play a match in the capital city in our home stadium -- I believe this is big progress for football in Iraq," Alwohal told CNN.

"You could see from the faces of the people and the celebrations after the match how important it was. Football has the potential to help heal the wounds of what has happened in Iraq and the reaction of people shows what it means.

"Now we need to develop the infrastructure in Iraq well so that we have better facilities, so grounds are brought up to the required standard and football can progress.

"For Iraqi people, football is religion -- we are all crazy for it -- and I hope that this match is the dawn of a beautiful new era for the game in Iraq."

Indeed the foundations for the next stage also seem to be coming into place. The Iraq Ministry for Youth and Sport has plans for the construction of a new FIFA International quality stadium in Basra as a location to host the 21st Gulf Cup in 2012. See a video of the plans for the new stadium.

But Simon Freeman, author of Baghdad FC, which tells the story of Iraqi footballers who lived under the reign of Saddam Hussein and is an expert on the game in the country, admitted that the match maybe a milestone in the country's development, but there is still much work to be done.

Can football help heal Iraq? Leave your comments in the Sound Off box below.

"Obviously this match is important because when sporting fixtures make a return to country -- or city -- blighted by war it does tend to suggest that progress is being made there," he said.

"But it a very small step and there could be a temptation to overplay the significance of the game against Palestine. It's an encouraging sign but there have been false dawns before so I don't think people should get too carried away.

"There is still a very long way to go before Iraq returns to something like normality so while it's great news that the game has gone ahead, I'd be inclined to exercise caution."

The impact of the organization of the match though has not been lost on the Asian Football Confederation who have subsequently approved a proposal by Iraq Football Association president Hussein Saeed to lift the sanction imposed on it from hosting the international games.

Citing successful organization of friendly games against Palestine as an example of a safe and secure Iraq, the Asian Cup holders will now host home matches for the national team and club teams in the city of Arbil.

"We are glad to be the first sports federation of Iraq to host official international matches of national teams at home after the war," Saeed told the AFC Web site.

"We had asked for approval of Baghdad, Arbil and Sulaimanyia venues but AFC has only approved Arbil as a first step. We will continue to press for the approval of the remaining two cities.

"Football plays an important role in the lives of the Iraqi people and they are waiting anxiously to watch their national team play the official international matches at home."

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