The Arabian Gulf Cup will return to Iraqi territory after a forty-four-year absence, thanks to Iraq’s successful bid to host the twenty-fifth edition in Basra in January 2023.
The biennial tournament of eight nations concluded in December 2019 in Qatar, with Bahrain taking home the trophy. The 2021 version was delayed because stadiums and hotels in the southern Iraqi city had not yet been completed.
The Gulf 25 is set to begin on Friday, January 6, 2023, and will run until the 19th of the month. It was supposed to take place in 2022, but that proved impossible due to a crowded international schedule that included World Cup qualifiers, Asian Cup qualifiers, and the Arab Cup, not to mention the World Cup itself.
Iraq will host the tournament for the second time in its history, following the first in 1979, when it hosted the fifth edition at the Al-Shaab International Stadium in Baghdad and was crowned champion.
The draw took place on October 25, 2022, at the Grand Millennium Al Seef in Basra. By selecting one team from each of the four ranked pots, the eight teams were divided into two groups of four.
The teams were divided into four pots for the draw based on the FIFA World Rankings from October 2022. Pot 1 was made up of the hosts Iraq and the holders Bahrain, who were assigned to A1 and A2, respectively.
Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen were placed in the first group in the 25th Gulf draw. At the same time, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain, the defending champion, were placed in the second group.
Sindbad, the official mascot for the 25th Gulf Cup, was also unveiled on that occasion.
The Arabian Gulf Cup began in 1970 and is held every two years. The first was held in Bahrain in 1970, and the most recent was held in Qatar in 2019.
Kuwait has the most titles in the tournament's history, with ten, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq each have three.
Kuwait's national team won three more consecutive championships in 1972, 1974, and 1976, before moving away from Arabian Gulf Cup gold for a short time after finishing runner-up in the 1979 edition.
The Kuwaiti team won first place and the championship gold medal in the 1982 edition, as well as in the 1986 and 1990 editions.
It took the Kuwaiti national team exactly 6 years to return to the podium after winning the Arabian Gulf Cup in 1996 and 1998.
Before returning to the podium to win the Gulf Cup gold in 2010, the Kuwait national team had been absent from the scene for more than 11 years.
The only time Iraq hosted the Gulf Cup was in 1979, when they also won. Despite competing in only 14 editions of the cup, the country is the second most decorated Gulf Cup champion of all time, a position it shares with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, having won the tournament three times. Kuwait leads the standings with ten victories.
Despite the country's constant state of political instability and disunity, the Iraqi population's special connection to football has managed to unite the people during major regional and international tournaments, with people flocking to support the national team regardless of their modest results.
Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate in 2007 after their team was crowned Asian Cup champions for the first time in history, at a time when the country was experiencing one of its most turbulent and volatile periods.
Oil-rich Basra is Iraq's second-largest city and home to roughly 70% of the country's proven oil reserves, which are estimated to be 153 billion barrels. It shares borders with Iran and Kuwait and is Iraq's only access point to the Arabian Gulf.
On one hand, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, who took office in November, has promised that his government will do everything possible to make the Basra tournament a success.
On the other hand, the Iraqi Football Association held a press conference in Basra to announce the launch of a website for the sale of match tickets. The 25th Gulf Championship Organizing Committee has designated five outlets in Basra to sell match tickets directly.
One of the city's stadiums can hold 65,000 people, while the second can hold 30,000 people and was inaugurated last Monday with a friendly match between two clubs from the domestic leagues of Iraq and Kuwait.
FIFA, football's governing body, lifted a ban on international competitions in Iraq that had been in place for years due to security concerns earlier this year.
Baghdad's packed Al-Madina Stadium hosted a friendly between Iraq and Uganda in January, the capital's first international match since 2013.
Razzaq Farhan Mussa, a former Iraqi footballer and Olympic athlete who is now the assistant manager of the Iraq national football team, predicted that the next Arabian Gulf Cup, which Basra will host, will be "exceptional" due to the extensive preparations in terms of modern stadiums and the expected public attendance.
Razzaq Farhan also told Majalla that the Lions of Mesopotamia are capable of competing for the title of "Gulf 25."
Farhan was a gifted goal scorer whose quick thinking and action made up for his lack of size and power. The Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya forward scored 24 goals in 60 games for Iraq after making his debut against Lebanon.
Farhan has played professionally for a number of clubs, including Qatar Sports Club and Al-Faisaly (Amman). He was also a member of the Olympic team in 2004, scoring the only goal in a losing semifinal match against Paraguay.
Farhan has over 60 caps and has scored 24 goals.
Farhan began his coaching career as an assistant to Radhi Shenaishil in the Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya club, where he worked for nearly two years. Farhan then began his first coaching career in December 2018 with Al-Diwaniya FC. Farhan had a good season in comparison to the club's poor sources. The club lost 7 games and won 8. Farhan had some very impressive scores, such as a 3-3 tie with Al-Zawraa SC before winning 3-2 in the second round. Al-Talaba SC was also defeated 2-0, Naft Maysan FC was defeated 3-1, and Al-Karkh SC was defeated 1-0. Farhan has a strong home advantage, which contributed to his contract being renewed for the following season.
The ex-Iraq striker went on to say that the presence of most of the teams and all of their stars will give the upcoming Gulf Cup the flavor of fierce competition.
"For several years, preparations went well, and the pace of preparations has recently increased. I anticipate that the next Gulf Cup will be exceptional, given the availability of modern stadiums and luxury hotels, as well as the rest of the logistical support provided by the Basra Governorate," Razzaq Farhan told Majalla.
Farhan talked about the team’s nomination to compete for the title: "The competition will be fierce, with most teams sending all of their stars, with the exception of the Saudi and Qatari teams. I expect the Iraqi and Omani teams to compete fiercely for the title, and we do not rule out Kuwait, Bahrain, or the UAE making the final."
As for the chances of the Iraqi national team to win its fourth Gulf title; "Despite its technical instability and the recent appointment of Spanish coach Jesús Casas, its chances of competing for the Gulf title 25 are great and strong. However, we expect a lot from them, in light of the presence of technical indicators to perfectly prepare the Lions of Mesopotamia for the championship, and I also expect the Iraqi public to play a very important role in enhancing Iraq's chances of winning the fourth title."
Farhan commented on the lack of professional players on the Iraqi national team: "Professional players must be absent due to commitments with their clubs in the Arab and European leagues."
"Although the absence of some of them, such as Ayman Hussein, Zidane Iqbal, and Amjad Atwan, may have an impact, local players can play big matches and make up for absences. We have distinguished players who have performed admirably in the Iraqi league," he added.
Away from the Gulf Cup, Majalla asked the former international about the current state of the Iraqi league, to which he replied: "The levels of the teams differ due to the elements and tools available, and some teams, particularly Al-Kahraba, Al-Najaf, and Al-Hedoud, performed admirably in previous rounds. The clubs with large audiences were impacted by the varying levels of their players, particularly the professional players who are expected to make the difference, but the upcoming rounds will see an improvement due to the escalation of the technical level."
The Arabian Gulf Cup, whose first edition was held in Bahrain fifty-two years ago, remains the football tournament that every Gulf home looks forward to because of its uniqueness, popularity, and connection to Gulf heritage. As a result, we hope that the Basra matches will serve as a complement to the previous twenty-four meetings.