Engineer Abdullah Al-Jiburi, whose company designed and built the Basra International Stadium, explains how improved facilities convinced FIFA to allow football to return to Iraq.
Iraq’s long battle for FIFA acceptance came to a happy conclusion in August as world football’s governing body gave the country the green light to play competitive fixtures on home soil for the first time in three decades.
It means that Iraq’s home qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 2020 will be played at Basra International Stadium, though FIFA president Gianni Infantino warned that the decision was “subject to revocation at any time if the security situation should deteriorate”.
A contingent return to Iraq is still a return, however, and for those on the ground, it has been a long time coming. Basra International Stadium is certainly an arena worthy of international football and has become an emblem of hope for a nation ravaged by war in the mid-2000s.
Basra International Stadium was conceived and built by the Abdullah Al-Jiburi Contracting Co., an Iraqi organisation that played a major role in the rebuilding effort after war – contributing a variety of infrastructure projects, from hospitals to dams.
The company is also responsible for Basra’s 10,000-capacity Al Mina’a Stadium and, elsewhere, the 35,000 New Najaf Stadium, an ambitious architectural homage to Iraq’s renowned Imm Ali Mosque.
For the company’s founder and chairman, Abdullah Al-Jiburi, sports stadia are a particular source of pride, given they help promote a sense of unity in a country that has historically suffered from factionism and sectarianism along racial and religious lines.
“When people watch football there is no politics, no pressures, no significant issues on their mind,” Al-Jiburi tells Sport Industry Insider. “It is just football. When the Iraq national team plays, everyone is together.
“In 35 years of the previous regime there were no new sports establishments; the last one was the Al-Shaab Stadium back in 1964. But now we are moving at a faster pace, building beautiful stadiums that can bring people together and reflect the heritage of Iraq.”
The Basra International Stadium appears to achieve the latter, with its striking palm trunk design the brainchild of Al-Jiburi himself.
“If you don’t have imagination, you are not an engineer; this ability to create something from nothing is what we live for.
“I had this idea about the palm tree and remember one night I asked one of my nephews to fetch a section of trunk from near our house. I took a photo and sent it to one of my architects on WhatsApp and said ‘this is our stadium – narrow on the bottom and open at the top’.
“Sometimes as a civil engineer we may build a housing complex with lots of tall buildings each similar to the next. Each apartment a twin of the next. I have built roads, kilometre after kilometre. Everything the same. A road is a road. A bridge is a bridge. Where is the joy?
“I want projects which carry some kind of challenge. In the stadiums, you can find out your capabilities and imagination. When I finish and I open the stadium I am happy that we have done something significant.”
Basra’s stadium cost $294 million to build, while the developments of the surrounding ‘Sports City’ area took the cost up to $541m. As a point of comparison, the Golden State Warriors’ new Chase Centre arena complex in San Francisco was a $1.4 billion project.
It is little surprise that the Basra International Stadium was well received by both the Iraq Football Association and the Iraqi Ministry of Youth & Sports, which commissioned its construction. But Al-Jiburi insists that, more importantly, the response from Iraqi football fans has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It is now one of the symbols of the city of Basra and I think it is really absorbing the attention of the youth in the city. The design was American but everything else about this project was Iraqi.
“It may be the only project in Iraq like this. I would say 95 percent of Iraqi people are proud of this establishment. The others will never be happy and always negative.”
The FIFA officials who visited Basra to assess its suitability as a venue for international fixtures seemed to agree, with Al-Jiburi revealing: “FIFA mentioned they were impressed with the design itself, the materials, the construction.
“This was of course very nice for me to hear as my reputation hangs on the quality of my work – whether it is a water treatment plant, a bridge or a football stadium.”
The decision of FIFA to allow Iraq to host competitive fixtures elevated president Gianni Infantino to hero status in the country ahead of Iraq’s October 10 meeting with Hong Kong at Basra International Stadium – their first home qualifier at the ground.
“FIFA’s decision is a big step for Iraq and we are proud to have been part of it,” Al-Jiburi says. “Gianni Infantino is someone who all Iraqi people like a lot. From the one who sells kebabs to the professional football players, he has a good reputation around the country as everybody feels he has helped and supported Iraqi football.”
Al-Jiburi’s handiwork has clearly played a key role in helping to restore some football order to Iraq after years of chaos, but there is one sporting dream that remains.
“My wish is to build a new national stadium in Baghdad – a symbol of national unity. We have bid strongly on this before and it is something I am sure we will achieve.”