Soccer's FIFA Drops Iraq from Competition

Just days before a World Cup qualifying match, Iraq has been suspended from the competition by FIFA, soccer's governing body. FIFA announced the one-year suspension after the Iraqi government disbanded all of the nation's sports governing bodies.

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Iraq's much-loved football team - in U.S. terms, it would be soccer - is facing an international ban that could stop the team from playing in future competitions around the world, and that could include the 2010 World Cup to be held in South Africa. FIFA, the International Football Federation, announced a one-year suspension after Iraq disbanded the National Olympic Committee there. The Iraqi team is due to play Australia in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday. FIFA says that match cannot be played unless Iraq reverses its decision.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from Baghdad.

How are Iraqis taking this news, Lourdes? This is a big deal, very popular national team there.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're really not taking this well. You've got to remember that Iraqis are fiercely proud of their national team, even though since the U.S.-led invasion, the Iraqi team has actually never played here. The team is made up from all ethnic groups, all religious groups, Shiite, Sunnis, Kurds. When the Iraqi team, against all odds last year, won the Asia Cup, it was a pivotal moment here, bringing Iraqis from all backgrounds together in celebration. So the idea that their pride and joy might not be able to compete in the World Cup is really upsetting people here.

I'm going to read you a couple of quotes from Iraqis we spoke to. Sad al Hasnawi(ph), he said: I was shocked when I heard. Even my mother asked me, what happened to you, my son, when she saw my face. I have Iraqi blood, he says, I am Iraqi, and I tell you it's a bad thing. Ahmed Nakhma(ph), he said: I'm very upset, I can barely watch television anymore. The Iraqi national team is the one thing that holds this country together. So pretty bad news all around for Iraqis.

ADAMS: Well, what in the world is happening? Why did Iraq disband the National Olympic Committee?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, as with many things here in Iraq, it's really hard to get a straight answer out of anyone. What happened is this: the Iraqi government made the decision to disband the National Olympic Committee. One official we spoke to said it was because some of the Olympic Committee members were kidnapped and killed in 2006, and they haven't been replaced. So they don't have a quorum to make decisions. Others that we spoke to say it's because the committee members that are there now are terribly corrupt and have links to terrorism. The end result has been that they have disbanded it, and they've put it under the control of the Iraqi government under the ministry of youth and sport.

ADAMS: So it still exists but is way down within the bureaucracy there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. I mean, it still exists but basically everyone who formed part of the committee has been fired, essentially. They've appointed new members in the interim. And it's been put under the direct supervision of the government. Now, FIFA, their problem is that national committees are supposed to be independent and should not be subject to government interference. They are viewing this as direct government interference. It's the sporting community, they say, that has to decide who gets replaced, when. Now, the Iraqi government, for its part, says it's not backing down. So the big question, of course, is why the Iraqi government decided to take this action right now ahead of this very important qualifying match.

ADAMS: Could it be FIFA just saying, well, you all have to be more professional here and get this thing worked out before we can go ahead with the World Cup soccer?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, they gave a press conference today in Australia, FIFA did. And they said that they were hopeful that this was going to be resolved. Certainly, the Iraqi government realizes that if it isn't resolved, you're going to have the entire country of Iraq in very bad spirits. And that has very serious repercussions here. And there could be worse news to come. The International Olympic Committee is now going to be looking into the Iraqi government decision, too. And that might mean that Iraqi athletes on their way to the Beijing Olympics may not be able to compete.

ADAMS: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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