Iraq defeated Syria 2-1 on Tuesday, days after FIFA lifted a ban on Baghdad hosting international matches, in just the second friendly to be played in the Iraqi capital since the 2003 invasion.
The match, played at Shaab stadium in central Baghdad, also highlighted the contrasting fortunes of the two neighbours — one of which is fitfully looking to emerge from decades of conflict, and the other seemingly spiralling into worsening violence.
Iraq took the lead in the 52nd minute with a strike from captain Younis Mahmoud, but Syria equalised in the 80th minute thanks to striker Omar Khribin, setting up a thrilling finish.
Defensive back Ali Rehema netted the winner well into injury time, leaving Syria one final, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at a draw.
The 40,000-capacity stadium was filled to capacity, with supporters holding up Iraqi flags and chanting, “Sunni, Shiite, brothers!”, a reference to the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq during the worst of its bloodshed, and now threatens to spillover from across its western border in Syria.
Security forces imposed tough measures in the area surrounding the stadium, due the fact that the friendly marked a key step in Iraq’s re-emergence on the world stage, but also because of the opponent, a country that has sparked sharp divisions within Iraq over the course of a bloody two-year uprising.
“I made sure to attend, despite all the security measures,” 19-year-old Ahmed Hani, who lost a leg in a 2008 car bombing in Baghdad and still walks aided by crutches, told AFP.
“This is a big occasion because Iraq is playing in its land, among its people.”
Also among the male-dominated crowd were a few women, including one who gave her name as Umm Mohammed, whose three sons forcefully persuaded her to attend the match.
“This is the first time I am visiting Shaab stadium,” she said. “My children insisted that I should come, to take part.”
FIFA had banned football-mad Iraq from hosting any international fixtures after a September 2, 2011 World Cup qualifier against Jordan in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, due to the poor administration and organisation surrounding it.
In particular, the match was delayed for 10 minutes because of a power cut, and the stadium appeared to have significantly more spectators than its capacity of 12,400.
Before the ban was lifted on Thursday, Iraq’s national team had been playing its home friendlies in Qatar, though it began training in Baghdad for the first time since the invasion this month.
Tuesday’s match was originally scheduled to be held in Arbil, but was hastily shifted to Baghdad last week.
While Iraq has struggled to replicate its stunning triumph in the 2007 Asia Cup — when it won the tournament while brutal violence was raging nationwide, thereby providing a rare non-sectarian symbol for Iraqis to unite around — it remains in the running to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
The team currently sits fourth in Group B of the Asia Zone final qualifiers with five points from five games, but trails second-placed Australia by just one point.
The top two teams qualify directly for Brazil in 2014 while the third-place squad goes into a playoff system.
Tuesday’s match was the second internationally-sanctioned football friendly to be held in Baghdad since the 2003 US-led invasion — Iraq thumped Palestine 4-0 at Shaab stadium in July 2009.