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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 141

Senator LIGHTFOOT (7:24 PM) —I wish to speak tonight on the Australia v Iraq soccer match to be played later this month, on 26 March, in Sydney. Our nation has a rich and diverse history of sporting achievements. The role that sport has played in developing our great country has produced athletes and legends that have become role models for and heroes to millions of people. Our love of sport is manifest and extends to a vast number of sports, including Aussie Rules, cricket, rugby, hockey, soccer, athletics and many more, and we have been fortunate to have had the luxury of watching our sporting heroes on so many occasions. Australia has produced an inordinate number of world-renowned sporting identities such as Don Bradman, Victor Trumper, John Landy, Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert, Walter Lindrum and many more.

Over the last few years, so many of the images to come out of Iraq have been negative and outrageous, so the recent announcement by the chairman of Football Federation Australia, the eminent Australian Mr Frank Lowy, that Australia will take on Iraq on 26 March in Sydney is a fantastic opportunity to promote something positive about this newest of democracies. The opening statement in the preamble for the transitional period of the new Iraq government is:

The people of Iraq, striving to reclaim their freedom, which was usurped by the previous tyrannical regime, rejecting violence and coercion in all their forms, and particularly when used as instruments of governance, have determined that they shall hereafter remain a free people governed under the rule of law.

What greater example is there of a nation that is looking to move forward and embrace the future?

The passion for and love of football already exists in Iraq. It is now a matter of developing that passion and guiding it in the right direction—a direction in which it is being guided by the former coach of the Western Australian team, Perth Glory, Mr Bernd Stange. The current world football rankings have the Iraqis in 44th place, compared to Australia in 58th place, with Guam in the Pacific bringing up the rear in 205th place. Iraq demonstrated their potential when they made the semifinals at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, defeating Australia in one of their qualifying matches and making the quarterfinals in the Asian Cup. The fact that they made the semis despite the lack of a domestic league and a training venue and with limited preparation makes this feat even grander and their coach more commendable.

This friendly football match to be held in Sydney is a historic event between our countries. This will be the first time in more than 30 years that Australia and Iraq have met at a senior international level. Australia and Iraq have met on two previous occasions, both during the World Cup campaign of 1973. The Sydney match in March of that year saw Australia win 3-1. Then, in July, in a game in Melbourne, Iraq held the Socceroos to a nil-all draw. The Sydney game on 26 March, with both teams at full strength, is going to provide exhilarating entertainment. It is an extraordinary gesture that FIFA is making in assisting with funding to fly the Iraqi team to Australia and in providing the players with generous appearance fees. These fees will be put to excellent use in helping to develop football at all levels in Iraq when the players return.

As well as Australia’s contribution to football in Iraq, a new program has been launched in the United Kingdom, funded by a consortium of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the English Football Association and the Iraqi Football Association. The role of this program is to make sure that the game is developed at a grassroots level and to ensure that the game continues to grow in popularity in Iraq. It is magnificent to be able to witness developed nations helping to foster a game that is respected so much and, in doing so, assisting in that country’s transformation.

The popularity of football and the love of the game have been evident from the time of its origin. In 1314 the then Lord Mayor of London believed football caused too much disruption and so outlawed the game. Anyone seen playing football faced imprisonment. King Edward III followed suit in 1331 when he banned the game altogether. Similar laws were introduced in France. The Hundred Years War between England and France, from 1338 to 1453—which is actually 115 years—saw the game outlawed, yet again, because the monarchs considered that the game had no military application. Instead, the English army were instructed to undertake more useful forms of discipline such as archery. For over 500 years, football was prohibited in different forms, yet at no time was the game ever completely suppressed.

So there is another revolution in the new Iraq: it is soccer. Already, a new domestic competition has been launched throughout Iraq, and this year will see the finals of this newly established league played in Baghdad in May this year. The Iraqi football team have had the honour of representing their nation on many occasions, yet they have not been able to do so on home soil for some time. The last occasion on which they played in front of their own people was nearly three years ago. The advantage of playing on your home ground is immense. The recent events that have transformed Iraq into a fledgling democracy will ensure that it will not be long before the soccer team can represent their nation on home soil.

I believe that as Australians living in the safety and security of this country, with the liberties and democratic freedoms into which we are born, we may tend to forget just how fortunate we are and fail to realise how difficult and dangerous it was for the Iraqis prior to their liberation. The difficulties which the officials and players have faced are almost beyond comprehension. It has been reported that on occasions the team has had to sleep in airports, play in bare feet and with no guernsey, simply because there was no money to pay for these essentials. Yet the honour of representing their troubled nation has meant that the players, notwithstanding the conditions, have prevailed.

The coach, Adnan Hamd Majeed, who won the Asian Football Confederation’s Coach of the Year award in 2004, recently resigned citing security problems. Former Perth Glory coach Bernd Stange from Perth, Western Australia, also resigned from the coaching position after having a significant positive impact on the team. Bernd Stange was questioned on the lifestyle in Iraq in an interview with FIFA and asked why he had left. Part of his response was: ‘My driver Siad Tarek, a former Asian karate champion, was shot a few minutes after dropping me off at the Sheraton Hotel. A bullet went through his hand and he also received a head wound.’

It is evident that there is a slight difference in lifestyle between the two countries in the punitive and sometimes fatal punishment that follows defeat. As Iraq moves forward towards full democracy, in peace, quality professionals will be enticed to coach and represent this talented and accomplished football team. Obviously, Australia has played a large role in helping to liberate a nation that has been dominated by an abhorrent dictator and where its citizens have lived in fear of their lives for over 50 years. Recently, we have seen democracy restored to a one-time proud nation that encompasses the very cradle of civilisation. I have witnessed this pride slowly bring a sense of change and normalcy to its people.

The upcoming friendly game between Australia and Iraq further cements the bond that has been forged between two nations that have much in common. If Australia can encourage a pastime such as football to develop and grow, we should be prepared to assist. The Constitution that governs Australia is based on democracy and the fundamental rights of its citizens to live in freedom and safety. Australia is one of the five oldest continuous democracies in the world. Although our relative democracies have developed in very different circumstances, the development of a constitution has the ability to empower a nation and its people—witness, although not strictly a constitution, the Magna Carta. It embodies all that is important about a country—its beliefs, traditions, freedoms and a base for law that goes a long way to shaping a nation’s future.

The recently elected National Assembly of Iraq is in the process of drafting a permanent constitution which is due for completion on 15 August 2005. I take this opportunity to implore the National Assembly of Iraq to develop a constitution that is relevant to all Iraqis and that will provide direction to a country that has grasped the opportunity to embrace democracy. With exceptional leaders of the ilk of General Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Allawi, I have no doubt as to its success.

The symbolism of the changes show that the game is strong, that it will no longer be held back and that those who wish to should not be prevented from playing. Yet at the same time the material needs of the players must be addressed. The majority of the domestic clubs have little or no equipment or resources and the ground on which they play and train is in poor condition. The funding is minimal or nonexistent. This is slowly beginning to change with the development of the headquarters of the Iraq Football Association and improvements to their major grounds.

It was recently announced that the local Nahrain TV has signed an agreement to televise all the matches of the Iraqi football league, which will increase funding through the greater promotion of advertising. The game of soccer is the most popular in the world and is played by millions of people in over 150 countries. Our great nation has been blessed with many sporting achievements and memories. We have produced athletes that generations of people have admired and respected. The potential for Iraqi football is vast, and I look forward to watching their progress in anticipation of great outcomes. I congratulate Football Federation Australia and the Iraq Football Association on their initiatives. The upcoming match will pit two great competitors against each other. I am sure that this spectacle will be the first of many more friendly competition matches to come. May God be kind to the new Iraq. Do not forget 26 March, Sydney—be there. (Time expired)