Olyroos to play it 'safe' in Iraq
For the Australian Olympic team, it promises to be an away game like no other, playing a qualifier against Iraq ... in Iraq.
Although Australian officials have yet to get official confirmation of the fixture, the city of Arbil has been awarded safe status for hosting official games by FIFA and it's expected to be the venue when the Australian under-23 side face Iraq on November 23.
It's thought the Olyroos would be the first official Australian side in any sport to play in the war-torn country in recent years.
Aurelio Vidmar's squad will face Iraq, Uzbekistan and the UAE in a home-and-away schedule whose winner heads for London next year.
After a couple of friendlies, Iraq was told it could host a World Cup qualifier against Yemen in Arbil last month, which it won 2-0.
The sport is huge in a region seen as a good-news story for Iraq. Semi-autonomous since 1970, Iraqi Kurdistan, of which Arbil is the capital, governs itself - though it is very much part of Iraq under the post-Saddam constitution.
While much of Iraq was decimated by the 2003 invasion, the Kurdistan region is the recipient of widespread foreign investment.
Terrorist activity since then has been sporadic, with little or nothing in recent years. In fact, "Arbil is a nice, safe city - I played there a number of times and I enjoyed it," said Ali Abbas, the Iraqi international who now plays for Newcastle.
Nonetheless it is also just 80km from Mosul, where the level of insurgency is dangerously high.
Not only that, but the Department of Foreign Affairs advice is stark: "Provinces administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - Dahuk, Erbil [sic] and Sulaymaniyah - appear to be relatively more stable. However, violence in these provinces persists and conditions could deteriorate quickly.
The threat of terrorism and kidnap remains high."
In terms of security, the Olyroos will rely on the consultant who provides a similar service to the Socceroos, with a brief to engage with the Australian government and local authorities.
The players will maintain a very close watching brief on the situation and will also take advice from the Australian Cricketers' Association, whose concern over tours of Pakistan led them to conduct their own security assessments."We're confident the FFA has a relationship with the Australian government such that players won't be put in harm's way," said the head of the soccer players' union, Brendan Schwab.
"We're also confident that the Australian government would never place any of its citizens in any sort of dangerous situation."Note: The Australia Olympic football team, more commonly known as the Olyroos