From pitch to politics: Iraq’s new sports minister Adnan Dirjal, Sports News

Former Iraqi football star Adnan Dirjal swapped his studs for a suit this week when he was named the country’s new youth and sports minister. 

The slender and balding 60-year-old with a quick smile and sloping nose, who was one of Iraq’s most prominent national captains, was one of the only recognisable names among 15 ministers approved by parliament on Thursday, after five months of stalemate over a new government. 

The fresh cabinet, led by Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi, is mostly staffed with ex-ministers and technocrats — so an all-star name like Dirjal stands out. 

His renown appears to have exempted him from the sectarian horse-trading that usually shapes government appointments in Iraq — Dirjal, a Shiite Muslim, was nominated to the post by a Sunni party. 

“Captain Dirjal is above sectarian calculations,” tweeted parliament speaker Mohammad al-Halbussi, Iraq’s most senior Sunni official. 

Accompanying the tweet was a grainy video from a 1982 match against South Korea in which Dirjal scored, sparking jubilant cries from the crowd. 

But others point to Dirjal’s cozy connections with government leaders and businessmen in the Gulf, where he has been based for the past 25 years, as political capital Iraq’s Sunnis would be keen to exploit. 

– Football under fire –

Dirjal launched his career in 1979, the same year Saddam Hussein came to power in a palace coup inside the ruling Baath party. 

The defender played three seasons at Baghdad’s most popular club Al-Zawraa before jumping to Al-Rasheed, owned by Saddam’s son Uday, for five seasons starting in 1984.

Uday’s reputation for violence included the alleged torture of footballers whom he deemed to have underperformed. 

As captain, Dirjal led Al-Rasheed to win several cups and Iraqi league titles. He also played on the national team, helping it win the 1979 Gulf Cup and reach three Olympics.

The games continued through the bloody Iran-Iraq war, which swallowed up most of the 1980s and saw hundreds of thousands of young Iraqi men vanish on the battlefield.

The 1990s saw Iraq struggle under an international embargo — but football carried on, one of the few sources of respite for an exhausted population. 

Dirjal served as manager for the national team in the first few years of the blockade but left Iraq in 1995 for Qatar, where he coached several clubs. 

In 2014, he gave up football management for television, working as a sports commentator for several Arab channels.

He returned to Iraq for the first time in 2018 hoping to lead the country’s football federation, but his CV was deemed “fraudulent” and his bid disqualified.

– ‘Part of reforms’ –

The new government faces a laundry list of crises, including an oil price collapse, the coronavirus pandemic and brewing tensions between the country’s main allies, Iran and the United States.

Dirjal, too, will inherit some tough challenges. 

One controversy is over Iraq’s Olympic Committee, which was dissolved by US-led occupation forces in 2003 because it was led by Uday Hussein.

The committee regrouped with new members and was active for 15 years, until the outgoing youth minister suddenly cancelled its 2018 membership elections.

The ministry claimed the committee’s status was never properly re-established after 2003, adding that its finances should therefore be managed by the ministry.

It is one of a number of administrative hurdles Dirjal will have to face, but many believe the powerful symbolism around his career will play to his advantage. 

“He’ll work closely with the athletes, and that will help him resolve many problems and re-establish some stability in the world of sport,” said Jazayir Sahlani, the executive director of Iraq’s Olympic Committee. 

Much hope is resting on Dirjal, but he seems up to the challenge: at a press conference in Baghdad in February, he was asked what the future of Iraqi football might be. 

“We athletes want to be a part of the reforms in this country,” he answered. 

As minister, Dirjal will now finally have his shot.