Karbala (Iraq) (AFP) – The match might have ended 1-1, but for Iraqi football fans Tuesday’s tie between Baghdad’s Al-Zawraa and Beirut’s Al-Ahed will be one for the record books.
It was the first international competitive club game to be played on Iraqi soil in more than 20 years after FIFA lifted a ban on the war-torn country.
“The world saw that Iraq was at the level and that it had the capacity to host a championship,” fan Ali Essam told AFP.
From the early morning, cars lined up at checkpoints set up at the entrances to Karbala, the Shiite holy city about 100 miles (60 kilometres) south of Baghdad.
Buses of Al-Zawraa fans drapped in the club’s signature white flags arrived in their dozens, with supporters filling Karbala’s 30,000-seat stadium almost to capacity.
“It’s an important game for us,” Al-Zawraa’s coach Ayub Oudisho told AFP before the Asian Football Confederation match.
“We’re playing in front of our fans and we have to take advantage,” said Oudisho, whose team drew against Al-Ahed when they squared off in Beirut in February.
Iraq was prohibited from hosting international games since the early 1990s until FIFA ruled in March to bring it back into the full international fold.
After first allowing the return of friendly games last year, global footballing authorities finally agreed to let foreign teams come for competitive games after saying security conditions were fine.
The return of international competitions has been seen as major progress by Iraqis and their government, as the country looks to attract investment and change its image after years of violence.
But still only three stadiums in the country have been given the greenlight to host the ties.
They are the stadium in Karbala, the country’s most modern arena in the southern city of Basra, and the main stadium in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Arbil.
Even though his team didn’t win, Ali Essam was still positive after Tuesday night’s draw.
“The most important thing is not the result but the club, which is the pride of the entire country,” he said.