SULEIMANIYAH â€” This year’s Iraqi cup final is to be played in the autonomous Kurdish north for the first time amid safety fears around a tie that threatens to fan sectarian passions.
The favourites from Baghdad, 10-time champions Zawra, take on the long underachieving side of the Shiite clerical capital Najaf, who are playing in the final for the first time in the cup’s 32-year history.
“The government has advised us of its concerns about this tie being played in Baghdad because of the risk posed by thousands of fans being gathered in the Shaab stadium,” the secretary general of the Iraqi Olympic Association, Amer Jabbar, told AFP.
He said the government was particularly concerned about the difficulties of scheduling the game around the curfew in force in the capital.
Even when the curfew is not in force during the day, as it has been several times in recent weeks, the nighttime ban on movement imposed since June 14 begins at 8:30pm (1630 GMT).
But torrid daytime temperatures in the capital at the height of summer make any kickoff before 6:00pm inconceivable, leaving little or no time for fans to get home after the full-time whistle.
“That’s why we chose Sulaimaniyah in Kurdistan and chartered a plane to carry the Najaf and Zawra teams up there,” said Jabbar.
The city has a 20,000-seater stadium and has been largely free of the attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militiamen that have blighted much of the rest of the country.
A security source said the government had also been motivated by fears of crowd trouble.
In Zawra’s semifinal clash with air force side Jawiya on May 24, one fan died and 20 were injured in disturbances on the terraces and police later confiscated weaponry including grenades outside the stadium.
“I believe it just isn’t appropriate to play the game in Baghdad,” said Iraqi football federation secretary general Ahmed Abbas.
“How can you ask the security forces to steward tens of thousands of fans when they are tied up providing security for the whole capital?” he asked.
The managers of the two clubs are divided over the unprecedented change of venue for the already delayed final, which was originally due to be played on June 16.
For the mighty Zawra with its large Baghdad fan base, the move is deeply unwelcome.
“The delay and the fixture’s transfer to Suleimaniyah have obstructed our preparations and had a psychological impact on our players who will not be able to perform in front of the fans,” said club manager Saleh Radi.
He insisted his team would win nonetheless.
“We’ve played Najaf 46 times and we’ve won 24, drawn 15 and lost just seven. What’s more we’ve got six players in the national squad while they count just a single under-21,” he said confidently.
But for Najaf, the change of venue away from Zawra’s fan base in the capital is a welcome boost to their chances.
“The move and the delay have given us longer to prepare and the change of venue will deprive our opponents of their home support,” said Najaf manager Abdel Ghani Shahad.
For the fans of both teams though, the move is a disappointment as it will deprive them of the opportunity to watch the game live.
For Shiites and Sunnis alike, multiple roadblocks and fear of attack make the long road journey north to the Kurdish mountains virtually inconceivable.
“I’ve been a die-hard Zawra fan for 30 years and have never missed a home game,” said Leith Abdul Jabbar, 50.
“For me, this cup final is more important than the World Cup in Germany, but it’s too dangerous to cross the country to get to Sulaimaniyah so I’ll have to watch the game on TV.” Across the sectarian divide in Najaf, 36-year-old hotel employee Majid Al Jashami shared Abdul Jabbar’s disappointment.
“Lots of fans would have loved to go and see the game in Kurdistan but it’s impossible as the roads are infested with terrorists,” he said, referring to the Sunni Arab insurgents who have increasingly targeted Shiite civilians for sectarian killings.
“And unfortunately the construction work at Najaf airport is still not finished.” But at least the fans have a game to look forward to, if only on the television.
The match was nearly called off altogether when Zawra bosses threatened to forfeit the tie. They only had a change of heart when President Jalal Talabani ordered $180,000 in prize money for the winners.