On Sunday (Jan 26) , Iraqis across the country and even abroad celebrated their national soccer team’s winning of the Asian Football Confederation Championship for under 22. In the final match, Iraqis managed to beat their traditional rival, the Saudi team 1-0.
The victory came in a time when many observers believe that the country is sliding towards the brink of a civil war provoked by the recent Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).occupation of two cities in the Anbar province and Iraqi government attempts to dislodge them.
The final match against Saudi Arabia meant a lot for some Iraqis, many of them whom believe that the Saudi Kingdom, which refuses to acknowledge the Shi’a government of Nuri al-Maliki, is funding the Sunni insurgency.
What made the situation even worse is that Iraq has recently decided to withdraw from the 2014 Gulf Cup, an international soccer tournament between countries from Arab states bordering the Persian Gulf. It was originally going to be hosted in its southern Iraqi city of Basra, but was moved to Saudi Arabia under pretext of safety and infrastructure concerns raised by the Saudis. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a weekly televised speech that the tournament change was “prejudiced against the rights of the Iraqi people,” Al Jazeera reported.
Sunday’s match embodied a rare show of unity where Iraqis from different sects and ethnic groups took to the streets with spontaneous celebrations displaying their country’s flag over the cars and dancing till late hours of the night. Fans also took the social media with videos and photos echoing national sentiment and pride.
Yet the same match highlighted the depth of the sectarian conflict which has swept the Middle East and spilled on to the football pitch.
Ahead of the game, some Iraqi news and social media sites exchanged photos of alleged Saudi fans carrying a banner that reads in Iraqi dialect: “Iraqis you will be dreaming if you think you can win today”.
In return, Saudi fans exchanged on twitter a photo shopped image published by Iraqi news website, Al Nahar, showing the Saudi team dressed like extreme Islamists with a caption that reads: “Daish team”, the Arabic abbreviation and pejorative term for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (ISIS).
Over the past ten years, Iraq national soccer teams have managed to bring people together like nothing else can. The memory of winning 2007 Asian Cup in Jakarta is still fresh many fans’ minds. Back then the sectarian violence was at an all time high in the vacuum left by Saddam’s overthrow, the victory allowed Iraqis to feel that they had reclaimed football and saw Shia, Sunnis, Christians, Muslims, Kurds and Turkmen join together in a national celebration. The youth national team also did well in the recent World Cup held in Turkey when it reached the semi finals.
Despite all these successes and the national team’s popularity there has been hardly any initiative to capitalize on such success for a national branding and unity campaign which seems essential for a country like Iraq where national identity is lost midst the political and sectarian divisions.
Nation branding is meant to build a an image or perception for a country that usually serves two purposes: one is to promote the country’s image internationally to attract investors and tourists, and second to promote it domestically to the its own citizens. In the case of Iraq, these two purposes seem critical as it seeks to expand its economic growth globally and to inspire national pride and unity, or bring an end to violent sectarianism.
However, the most crucially factor for Iraq now is the second function of nation branding and that is promoting a consistent and distinct national identity to a domestic audience. This means that citizens need to be treated as carriers of the campaign message. They must live the brand.
Unfortunately, the Iraqi government has done very little to capitalize on the national soccer teams’ victories. Initiatives are usually restricted to financial rewards to the team members and perhaps photo ops with them to win fan’s support for election campaigns.
What the Iraqi government ought to do is to engage those players in around -the – year schedules to get them to play against well-known teams whether in tournaments or friendly matches while building an comprehensive ad campaign around them. Such a campaign could help produce the momentum promoting an Iraqi sense of belonging, unity, pride , and eventually contribute to that international aspect of the campaign.
While the tactics of the nation branding may vary, the brand story has to stay true to the changes the country is trying to make.It should be rooted in honesty. In Iraq’s case, using the soccer national team would make a believable story . The purely Iraqi effort the players and their local coach made to win the championship stands as evidence that when sectarian divisions and differences are set aside, progress can be made.
Published by Baghdad-based independent Al Aalam Newspaper on Feb 5 2014