Players from Al-Zawraa prepare in Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Around 20,000 people from other parts of Iraq will flock to the capital of the Kurdistan Region on Monday night, as Erbil hosts Iraq’s first internationally sanctioned football match since 2013.
Iraq’s Defending Cup champions Air Force Club will match against Al-Zawraa in the second-round match of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
“We hope this match will be in line with both team’s levels in terms of support by fans and performance by the players in order to present a positive message to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). I also call on the fans to come and show great support for their team,” Air Force Club coach Basim Qassem told Rudaw.
Just 70 kilometers from war-torn Mosul, the sprawling metropolis of Erbil has been largely spared from the violence that engulfed much of Iraq, but getting fans from the two Baghdad-based clubs into the Kurdish capital poses a potential challenge with additional security screening.
“We are happy to play on the soil of Iraq, in particular Erbil. It is a crucial and decisive match between Al-Zawraa and Air Force Club. Winning this match will lead any team to reach the top of the Iraqi Premier League. Wining in this match will also help boost psychological conditions of our players,” Al-Zawraa player Loai Salah told Rudaw.
FIFA, the world’s football governing body had banned Iraq from hosting international football matches for nearly four years due to the rise of ISIS and anti-ISIS efforts.
However, FIFA lifted the ban earlier this month and the AFC has agreed to allow the first match since 2013 to be hosted in the safety of Erbil.
FIFA is imposing a three-month trial period in the country to ensure that the country can organize and host football matches according to international standards.
Staff at Erbil’s Franso Hariri Stadium are preparing for upwards of 20,000 fans. Iraq's Ministry of Youth and Sports announced that it would cover travel expenses for 1,000 fans from each of the two clubs, which have hired buses to transport supporters to see the match.
Kurdish authorities have planned to spend an estimated $100 million in the coming years to revive and develop an industry which many believe will be profitable in the long-run.
According to the Kurdish union of hotels and restaurants there are nearly 4,000 guesthouses, eateries, and vacation sites in the Kurdistan Region which primarily earn their revenues through holidaymakers who had come in their thousands in the past. Many new hotels and holiday facilities were built over the past few years to attract more guests from south and central Iraq who often vacationed in the Kurdish north’s cool temperatures in the summer months.
But the double shock of plummeting oil prices and the ISIS war hit the hotel industry hard as tourists increasingly chose to stay away.
“I think the tide has turned in our favor now,” Malawi Jabar, the Director of the Kurdistan Tourism Board previously told Rudaw. “Most hotels and motels have already been booked ahead of this summer’s holiday season, which are great signs.”