Anthony Ferguson went along to see two games played by Iraq as part of a tour organised by former Glory coach Bernd Stange and current Iraqi coach. He was kind enough to write about it and here it is...
The relatively obscure footballing backwater of Perth, Western Australia, bore witness to a game of some political significance in late November 2003. Dubbed the World Peace Tourı, the two match unofficial international friendly series between the Iraq national team and an Australian Representativeı side passed by almost without notice, despite widespread media publicity throughout the State in the weeks preceding the games, which were to take place in metropolitan and regional WA.
The main instigator of the event was Bernd Stange, coach of Iraq and former boss of the current National Soccer League (NSL) champions, Perth Glory. Stange, who also previously coached the former national team in his native East Germany, as well as prominent club sides Carl Zeiss Jena and Hertha Berlin, used his media clout and local popularity to draw attention to the matches on a pre-tour stopover.
In the build up to the games, Stange made an emotional plea to the local soccer community by alluding to the difficulties faced by the Iraqis in attaining the basic supplies necessary to even compete on a level footing with other teams grass pitches, boots, balls, medical and changing facilities. According to Stange, his team was starting from scratch as a result of the social upheaval brought about by the US led takeover of the country.
Yet despite this, they had still managed to qualify for the forthcoming prestigious Asian Nations Games tournament a competition in which our own Socceroos should really be competing, but that is another story - this despite having to play all of their qualifiers away from home.
Stange had managed to get the WA State Government and its Perth Glory supporting Premier, Geoff Gallop, on board. The Premier in fact attended the first game and tossed the coin before kick off.
However, in spite of all the goodwill and positive publicity, the games were witnessed by meagre crowds of about 1-2 000 people. Moreover, at the first encounter, staged in metropolitan Perth, the majority of the supporters in attendance were clearly Iraqi immigrants or at least of Middle-Eastern descent. So what went wrong? Well, it is possible to conjecture a number of potential reasons for the poor attendance figures.
Firstly there was the entrance fee. At $15 for adult admission it represented a slight increase on what one would pay to watch the national champions in action, when perhaps a reduced round figure might have attracted more support. Further, there was the fact the first game was scheduled just one week after a quite dismal NSL match at the same venue, between the Glory and South Melbourne.
Then there was the stadium itself. The Gloryıs regular home, Perth Oval, is in the midst of re-construction toward becoming the eponymous Multi-Purpose Stadium, a ground apparently designed to accommodate the world game and provide the necessary closeness of supporters to the playing field, and associated atmosphere. Hence for the first half of the 2003-04 season, the Glory would play the majority of their matches on the road, with two pencilled in for the Joondalup Arena.
Unfortunately, closeness and atmosphere are exactly what the Arena ground lacks in soccer parlance, being as it is an Australian Football League (AFL) stadium. With its bowl shape and wide-open grassed terraces, the arena would struggle to provide an atmosphere at its full capacity of some 18 000, let alone the handful in attendance.
In addition there is the sheer distance of Joondalup itself from the city centre, being one of the far northern suburbs. Even the Glory had struggled to maintain decent attendances for the two games played there.
Perhaps there is a simpler explanation. The authorities had perhaps unwisely scheduled the game to clash with the live telecast of the Rugby World Cup Semi-Final in the eastern states between England and France. No doubt a large number of ex-pats would have stayed home to watch such an important fixture.
It was also a little disappointing that the organisers had neglected to produce a programme for the game. Such a publication would have been an interesting memento and potential collectors item. However, some of the merchandise on sale inside the ground included a series of postcard pictures of the entire Iraq squad, so perhaps they would suffice.
Before the match kicked off, Australian Prime Minister John Howard issued a pre-recorded greeting and offered the support of the government to the visiting Iraqi team. While the PM acknowledged the political significance of the game, it was noted that he didnıt deem it important enough to attend in person.
As for the match itself, the Iraqis we didnıt know too much about, having only witnessed them in action on highlight tapes from the 1986 World Cup finals, where they gave a reasonable account of themselves. We knew they recently qualified for the finals of the Asian Nations Games, but how fit would they be, given their perceived lack of basic facilities? Not to mention the stress of fearing for their lives every time they walk onto the training field.
How would they fare against the Australian Representative side, in essence an ersatz WA State team, a squad hastily cobbled together from out of season State league players, Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) youngsters, and ex-Socceroo, Lens, Blackburn, West Ham and Southampton star turned TV pundit, Robbie Slater? You would think on paper, the full Iraq national side would be more than a match for the locals, and that is pretty much how it transpired.
The visitors, displaying some deft, one touch passing movements and speed off the ball, dominated the more robust and direct locals for nearly the entire first half, which finished scoreless. While the quality of the Iraqi approach play was particularly admirable, the lack of goalmouth action at either end did little to inspire the small crowd. The second half proceeded in pretty much the same manner, with the locals stepping up their game to create a good number of chances. Yet still the visitors dominated. What they truly lacked was a finisher, but as the game petered out toward a seemingly inevitable penalty shootout, the Iraqis finally got the goal their delicate approach play deserved, through striker Abbas Hassan, in the penultimate minute.
One other moment of note during the game witnessed an Iraqi player picking up a yellow card dropped by referee Eddie Lennie, and consequently bookingı the official Gazza style, before handing it back. Thankfully, this internationally regarded referee did not respond with the same petulance shown to Gazza on that famous occasion in the Scottish Premier League.
On the final whistle, several hundred flag waving Iraqi supporters invaded the arena and mobbed their heroes in jubilation, while the slightly outnumbered locals and security staff stood around looking bemused. It was almost surreal to witness tens of Iraqi flags waving in victory on our own soil, while hundreds of Iraqis danced around in joy, like a triumphant mini invading army. For a moment it was possible to imagine how their compatriots must feel back home. But I donıt think anyone really begrudged these people, perhaps the lucky few to be afforded asylum in this country, the enjoyment of their moment in the sun.
The scene was a reminder that this was perhaps one of those rare occasions where the circumstances were much bigger than the game itself. In this regard, the on-field result was irrelevant to the wider ramifications of the event, which is why it was so disappointing to see such a minimal level of support on the day.
In the following days however, it was slightly disconcerting to discover scant mention of the game at all in the monopoly local newspaper, the West Australian, nor in the countryıs national paper, the Australian. One wonders if this was an oversight, or a political decision taken by the newspaper owners and editorial teams.
In the second tour match in rural WA a few days later, the visitors recorded a handsome 4:0 win against the same Australian side, sans Slater, watched by an estimated crowd of 1 000.
The general feeling given by the structure and organization of the tour was a sense of subdued embarrassment on behalf of the Australian authorities, from government to local soccer organisers. It was as if they felt compassion for the plight of the Iraqis, but at the same time were wary of making any overt political overtures toward the visitors. It transpired that this sense of wariness was transcribed to the general public, who offered only muted support of what could and should have been a culturally significant event.
Indeed, one cannot help but feel that if the tour had been a little more carefully planned - if Iraq had been able to play the national champions at their completed inner city stadium on a night that didnıt clash with other significant events, for example - then the game might have attracted the wider audience it deserved.
On the SBS television World Game programme (23 November), former Socceroo Johnny Warren and host Les Murray commented that a tour by the Iraq national side, ranked number 52 in the world prior to the tour, and subsequently up to 44 (in comparison, Australia is number 78, Scotland 50, Wales 58 and Chile 68 on the official FIFA website listing) should have been afforded a little more pomp and circumstance. Surely, they suggested, a team of the quality of Iraq was worthy of being granted a full international or two against our national team? Even if that side was made up of local NSL players, it should have been the least we could do for them, let alone for ourselves.
This is not to say that the tour was a complete loss. The Iraqis did receive a certain amount of good publicity and a fairly positive reception. At least they achieved their objective of gaining recognition for their struggles, and many local entities came forward to provide most of the equipment and other necessities they were asking for.
The lasting impression of the event however, must be that once more Australia has elided an opportunity to build closer ties with our Asian footballing neighbours, with a view to future collaboration in that area. After all, as much as we try to deny it, and as much as the Asian Football Confederation seems to want to avoid it, our footballing future, especially in terms of World cup qualification and regional development of the game, surely lies in that direction.