Iraq's unlikely stadium boom

The country is football mad, but still reeling from years of war. So will a raft of new stadiums for the 2013 Gulf Cup be completed? By Chris Beanland
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The Independent Online

In Iraq's darkest days, when Saddam Hussein's psychopathic son Uday wasn't busy prowling the streets of Baghdad looking for women to attack, he took time out of his monstrous diary to torture the Iraqi national football team.

Mistakes made on the pitch were punished with a mad ferocity several notches up from Alex Ferguson's legendary hairdryer treatment. Players had their heads forcibly shaved, were beaten on their feet, dragged through gravel pits, or forced to kick a concrete ball around a prison yard.

But a new era of football is coming to post-invasion Iraq. And the totem for that change is a shining stadium under construction in Basra, capital of the oil-rich south of the country.

Basra Sports City is a £360m scheme boasting a 65,000-seater football ground, which is to host the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations, and to usher in a new dawn for the game in the football-mad country, whose team recently triumphed in the 2007 Asian Cup.

"The idea is grandiose – a multi-purpose leisure facility springing up in what was very recently one of the most dangerous places on Earth," says Tom Dunmore, editor of the blog, which celebrates new stadium designs globally.

Aesthetically too, the main stadium in the sports city – which is now 70 per cent completed – gets Dunmore's thumbs up. "It's fantastic and unique – unlike so many cookie-cutter football stadium designs we've seen in England since the 1990s." The Gulf Cup games are being played in Basra, but another new Iraqi stadium is under construction in Najaf.

John Radtke, project manager at 360 Architecture, the US practice which designed the main stadium and much of the Sports City complex, says: "Every time we talk with one of the locals about the project, their faces light up. They are really looking forward to being able to finally host a true international event."

But is Iraq really ready to host an international tournament? And is a football ground the best use of scarce resources while 25 per cent of the population still live below the poverty line?

"Huge infrastructure projects like this allow for employment... and can be a source of national pride," says Ranj Alaaldin, an analyst on Iraq.

But will the Gulf Cup of Nations even happen in 2013? Iraq played their first international qualifier on home soil for a decade against Jordan in Erbil last month – but it didn't go well on or off the pitch. Iraq lost 2-0 and Fifa wasn't happy with crowd control and security. It has decided to force Iraq to play their home qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Qatar.

"Iraq's security situation is best described as 'fragile but managed' at the moment. At least 50 people are killed every week, largely as a result of suicide bombings and targeted assassinations," says Jason Vincent, a security consultant at Certus Intelligence. "In Basra, attacks have tended to be intermittent and low-impact. Vital assets are well-protected and difficult to target. These are likely to include sporting venues and tourist areas should the Gulf Cup be held there. But US troops are expected to withdraw at the end of this year... which has the potential to adversely affect the security climate."

Another problem is corruption. Opposition MP Baha al-Araji, of the United Iraqi Alliance, alleges payments of £1.28m were made in relation to the construction of hotels at Basra Sports City. A source close to the project told i they hadn't directly witnessed corruption but said they'd heard the project's managers wanted to get its finances cleaned up.

Alaaldin is not so circumspect: "Huge business projects like this always have an element of corruption to them. It's sometimes the way business gets done – not necessarily in the awarding of contracts but through various stages of the infrastructure project, ranging from the provision of materials to the logistics."

360 Architecture's Radtke comments: "In Iraq there's no shortage of rumours in regards to bribes and corruption, but we've managed to avoid it. We don't do business that way and the US government has made it clear that we do not play that game. We've gotten the impression that the new [Iraqi] government is doing all it can to correct the 'old ways' of doing business."

But even if the financing of the project is legitimate, who's paying for the construction costs?

Basra Sports City is being built by US architects and was part-funded by US investing group Newport Global Technologies. The rest of the funding comes from home-grown oil money. British contractors, like project managers Baker Wilkins & Smith, are also involved in the build.

But does the country really benefit from new stadiums?

"There are still areas in Iraq that lack running water and reliable electricity," says Dr Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a reader in comparative politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies. "Lest we forget, Saddam Hussein had a penchant for symbolic, colossal prestige projects. None of them really served Iraqi society. [Iraqi Prime Minister] al-Maliki is no Saddam of course, but the plight of the post-war Iraqi people will not be soothed by a stadium."

But for Iraq's football-mad masses, at least there's the possibility of seeing some top-quality international games on home turf. "The tournament is much needed in a place plagued with bloodshed," says Alaaldin. "It can restore the Iraqi people's sense of pride and national identity – much needed in a country that is besotted with ethnic and sectarian divisions."