KUALA LUMPUR: The upcoming World Cup qualifier between Iraq and the United Arab Emirates that was to be the first official international in Baghdad since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has been switched to Saudi Arabia.
Sunday’s missile attack on the northern city of Erbil prompted the switch to Riyadh for Thursday's game, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation announced Saturday.
"Following the latest incidents in Iraq as well as the broader shifts in global security in recent weeks, a reassessment of the safety and security situation in Iraq was performed jointly by FIFA and the AFC," the statement said.
“Based on the assessment and to ensure the highest standards of safety and security for all the stakeholders involved, it was decided that the match should be moved to a neutral venue."
The decision comes less than a month after the Iraq Football Association announced that FIFA, which had banned the country for much of the past 19 years from hosting international games due to security concerns, had given Baghdad the go-ahead to stage the crucial game.
Iraq has hosted just two World Cup qualifiers since 2003: against Jordan in Erbil in 2011 and Hong Kong in the southern city of Basra in 2019. All other competitive games involving the national team have taken place in neutral countries such as Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
There have been friendly games in Baghdad, however, such as Iraq's 3-1 win over Zambia on Friday at the Al-Madina Stadium. Zambia coach Aljosa Asanovic called for Iraq, seeking a second-ever appearance at the World Cup following its 1986 debut, to be allowed to host their games.
“We found the situation to be perfect, and the streets of the capital are filled with security and peace,” Asanovic said. “Iraq deserves to play at its own stadiums.”
With two games left in Group A, both Iraq and the UAE are out of the running for the two automatic qualification spots, secured by Iran and South Korea. They are chasing a third-place finish and a playoff route to the World Cup.
The group stage finishes on March 29 as the UAE hosts South Korea and Iraq takes on Syria in Dubai. Syria is also unable to host international games on home soil.