Iraq celebrated their first home soccer match since 2002 by defeating Palestine 3-0 in a friendly on Friday.
About 25,000 fans, many waving Iraq and Palestine flags and chanting “Iraq, Iraq” packed Fransou Hariri Stadium for a game that was as much about the nation’s struggle for stability as it was about sports.
Some fans sat on the roofs of nearby buildings to catch a glimpse of the match in the capital of a Kurd-ruled region that is safer than many other parts of Iraq.
Palestine planned to fly to Baghdad for a second friendly tomorrow, even though the capital was caught up in a deadly wave of bombings on Thursday.
“The holding of this match in Irbil gives a clear message to the world that Iraq is recovering and security is prevailing,” Hussein Saeed, head of the Iraqi Football Federation, told the crowd before the game. “We are here today because football is the message of love.”
Iraq last played a home game on July 22, 2002, when they beat Syria 2-1 in Baghdad. The country sank into chaos after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, but has made gains in security after years of insurgent attacks and sectarian violence.
On Friday, Hawar Mulla Mohammed scored in the 20th minute from a corner and Ahmed Younis made it 2-0 with a header, then Louai Salah capped the scoring in the second half.
Iraqi fan Faris Abdul-Amir, along with his wife and mother, came from the southern city of Karbala to support the national team in Irbil.
“I am very happy to see our national team playing on Iraqi soil for the first time in years,” he said. “In the past, we were deprived from watching our team playing in front of us.”
Iraq, known as the “Lions of the Two Rivers” in a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates, reached the Asian Cup final in 2007 and scored a stunning 1-0 victory over three-time champions Saudi Arabia.
The win set off wild rejoicing in Iraq, which at the time was experiencing some of its worst violence.