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Football, Quotas, and National Reconciliation in Iraq

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)
27 September 2007

[English translation of an op-ed originally published in Norwegian in Aftenposten, Oslo, 26 September 2007]

Soon after the recent announcement that Norway’s Egil “Drillo” Olsen is the new coach of Iraq’s successful national football team, critical voices emerged in the Norwegian media. Some suggested that Olsen would effectively be “collaborating with the US-led occupation of Iraq”, whereas others were concerned that he might be unable to navigate the ethno-sectarian tensions of the country when selecting players for future matches.

Olsen should not take this criticism too seriously. In the first place, it should be stressed that most Iraqis, regardless of their view of the Americans, see their football team as a legitimate symbol of national unity. Leading newspapers like al-Zaman, al-Mashriq and al-Manara (which frequently feature criticism of the Maliki government and the United States) all used big headlines to celebrate Iraq’s recent victory in the Asia Cup. Even Harith al-Dari, a prominent opposition politician with ties to the armed resistance, described the performance of the Iraqi squad as a victory for the entire nation. Purists may perhaps claim that no contact with Iraq is permissible pending the withdrawal of foreign troops, but those critics should appreciate the widespread affection for Iraq’s national team even among radical factions within the Iraqi opposition.

Another important point concerns the question of ethno-sectarian quotas. One important factor behind the popularity of the Iraqi team is the fact that it emerged relatively unscathed from the fixation with quotas that dominated the first years of the US administration of Iraq after 2003. True, many Iraqis value the way in which the national football team represents the ethno-sectarian complexity of their country. But perhaps more importantly – and this is often overlooked in the West – this “representation” is imperfect in mathematical and proportional terms. Strictly statistically speaking, Sunni Arabs and Kurds are “under-represented” in the current line-up. Nevertheless – and maybe precisely for this reason – the team remains enormously popular among members of the “under-represented” communities.

This is the area where the Americans committed one of their gravest mistakes during the early years of the occupation: the insistence that Iraqis should think of themselves primarily as sectarian citizens rather than as Iraqis. This way of thinking is entirely alien to Iraqi political thought, but it is an approach which was cultivated among members of the exiled opposition during the 1990s and which enjoyed something of a boom during Paul Bremer’s administration in 2003 and 2004. Bremer’s idée fixe was that sectarian disproprotionality had always been the main problem of the old Iraq, and while overlooking long periods of peaceful coexistence in previous eras such as the monarchy and Ottoman periods, he insisted that the political affairs of the country be conducted with strict ethnic proportionality as the guiding principle.

Today, most Iraqis yearn to be treated on the basis of qualifications and merits rather than according to sectarian criteria. Olsen should simply disregard the whole idea about ethnic and sectarian quotas and should rely exclusively on performance-related criteria when selecting his next squad. Iraq would stand to lose one of its last non-sectarian oases if also the national football team should fall victim to the principle of quotas. However, there is one aspect related to team selection in which sociological patterns in today’s Iraq might become relevant in the near future: the marked dominance of exiles in almost all fields of Iraqi society since 2003. Naturally, many of the most talented Iraqi football players have taken up lucrative offers from foreign clubs, mostly in the Gulf and in the Arab countries of the Mediterranean region. But Olsen should not neglect the domestic Iraqi league, historically one of the most enduring symbols of a unified Iraq free of sectarian logic. If it should prove impossible for him to visit matches in the domestic league due to security concerns, he should at least use video materials to acquaint himself with talented players inside Iraq. Once more, there should be no need for quotas, but with today’s difficult security environment there is a real danger that Iraqi footballers in the domestic clubs consistently would be at disadvantage during the selection of the national team. Under that sort of scenario, valid criticism of Olsen’s brave undertaking in Iraq might emerge.

For other articles related to Norway’s role in Iraq, see

Norway’s Oil Industry and the Partition of Iraq
Is Statoil Getting It Wrong in Iraq?




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