Iraq’s football association finally chose a new president on Saturday, potentially staving off threats of indefinite suspension from the sport’s global governing body after multiple postponements of the polls.
IFA board elections have long been plagued by chaos and allegations of political meddling, with polls originally held in July 2011 marred by claims of malpractice, while efforts in recent months to finally hold a new vote have been blighted by multiple delays and apparent threats of violence.
The never-ending crises, which mirror the standoffs and deadlocks in Iraq’s national politics, have overshadowed a rare issue with cross-sectarian appeal in a country grappling with fragile communal ties amid deteriorating security.
General committee members — the heads of local clubs, provincial sports officials and others — voted 42-33 in favour of promoting current vice president Abdulkhaliq Massud over keeping incumbent IFA chief Najeh Hmoud in place, according to an AFP journalist observing the election.
The election, which also determined who would take over two vice president posts and eight board seats, came after contested elections won by Hmoud in 2011 were annulled by the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport based on claims of multiple problems.
The IFA was originally due to hold these elections in January, following the CAS ruling, but balloting was postponed until April, and then finally to Saturday.
The multiple delays spurred world football’s governing body FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation to warn that if the polls were not held by the end of May, the IFA faced “immediate and indefinite suspension”.
FIFA and the AFC also alleged in a letter that in the lead-up to the planned April vote, “the AFC representative received threatening phone calls during his mission.”
Although FIFA insists that football must be free of politics, in Iraq politics permeates nearly everything, including sport.
In July 2013, FIFA barred Iraq from hosting international friendlies due to a surge in violence, reversing a decision three months earlier to allow the country to host such matches.
But despite the near-constant chaos, football continues to dominate Iraq’s sporting landscape, with cafes routinely packed with supporters cheering on the national side.
The team failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, however, and has struggled to replicate its stunning success in the 2007 Asia Cup when Iraq emerged triumphant, giving the country a rare national symbol as it was mired in a brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian war.