When the HOK-designed Basra International Stadium recently hosted its first international soccer game, it was the first match against a major regional rival on Iraqi soil in 28 years and the first against Saudi Arabia in nearly four decades.
The New York Times covered the historic Feb. 28 match between the Iraqi and Saudi Arabian national soccer teams and explored the impact sports can have on diplomacy and culture.
Excerpted from The New York Times:
To Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, it was an athletic coming-out celebration, a sign that Iraq had closed a chapter on its war-afflicted past and, in the wake of its defeat of the Islamic State in December, was on the path to stability.
But the match was also a potent symbol of sports diplomacy, with the visitors from the region’s major Sunni Muslim power, Saudi Arabia, coming to Basra, a historic port city in Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.
For Iraqi fans, the warm winter night offered the simple joys afforded to spectators at any big match: emotional catharsis and redemption.
“We have been divided by war, by bloodshed and fighting,” said Mr. Jiboori, the Basra businessman. “We Iraqis feared that we had lost our culture, and lost our hope. But today was different. Today we were united.”
While Iraqi officials were consumed with diplomacy, Basra’s civic leaders concentrated on making sure the event went off without a hitch.
“It’s our honor on the line,” said Abdullah Jiboori, whose construction company built the three-year-old, 60,000-seat Basra International Stadium, the largest sports arena in the Arab world.