The War That Couldn’t Kill Football

Iraq is a nation not only known for its rich and venerated history as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, but also for its cherished football culture and folklore. Known as “The Lions of Mesopotamia,” the national team enjoyed great successes and suffered even greater nightmares under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and his sadistic and violent son, Uday.

The national team, in possession of some of the most gifted players ever seen in the Arab world and perhaps in the continent itself, reached new heights, winning several titles and achieving great success beginning in the early 1960s winning the Arab Cup on four occasions in 1964, 1966, 1985 and 1988, the Gulf Cup on three occasions in 1979, 1984, and 1988, and the biggest achievement: qualification to the World Cup held in Mexico in 1986 and more recently the Asian Cup in 2007.

The nightmares under Uday’s regime

As president of Iraq's Olympic Committee, Uday (The president’s son) was the country's sports czar. He lived up to the reputation of being the world’s worst sour loser. According to numerous accounts from players, he turned his sadistic obsessions on the national football team. After drawing or losing games, players were severely punished in some of the most shocking and vile methods imaginable.

A missed penalty or other poor play caused a ritual head shaving at the Stadium of the People, or being spat on by Uday's bodyguards. A run of poor passes, carefully counted, could mean that a player's being forced to stand before the president's son in the dressing room, hands at his side, while he was punched or slapped in the face an equal number of times as a consequence.

But those were the lesser miseries. Some players endured long periods in a military prison, beaten on their backs with electric cables until blood flowed. Other punishments included "matches" kicking concrete balls around the prison yard in 130-degree heat, and 12-hour sessions of push-ups, sprints and other fitness drills, wearing heavy military gear and boots. These horrifying stories of torture makes football for any footballer simply a living nightmare.

A nation’s hero

Emmanuel Baba Dawud, known throughout Iraq as Ammo Baba, the Pelé of Iraqi football, served as the national coach for most of the last three decades. By the age of 20, the name of Ammo Baba (“Uncle Father”), the affectionate nickname given to him by his school’s team coach, was on everyone’s lips in Baghdad, becoming one of Iraq’s most prolific goalscorers at both local and international level, with a near perfect 100% goal-scoring ratio from 1955 to 1960.

As a player, he could adapt to any position, and played in defense, midfield and attack during his playing career. Throughout his time as the national coach, he said he had argued with Uday repeatedly over team selections, with the president's son favoring less talented players who were from the same Sunni minority in Iraq as the Husseins over the talented young Shiites from Saddam City.

In an interview with The Times in 2003, Ammo Baba said “The day I met him, my problems began. He ruined my life.” Although rumors of Uday’s cruelties have leaked out before, only then, after the regime’s fall, are people ready to talk. Mr. Baba, who coached teams that won 18 championships and went to three Olympics, said that he was hired and fired 19 times by Uday, who did not want to share the glory of victory but needed the veteran footballer’s skills to build teams and win matches.

As a coach, Baba led Iraq to Gulf Cup victories in 1979, 1984, and 1988, and an Arab Cup victory in 1988 as well. Iraqis were proud that Baba also led Iraq to qualify for the World Cup in 1986 and the Olympics in 1980, 1984, and 1988. Iraqis held a deep reverence for Baba because he zealously defied Uday’s demands.

“ used to call players before games and threaten them and their families. Sometimes he telephoned the dressing room at half-time. He talked nonsense. I told him to go to hell. I said he knew nothing about football. How did I survive? Because the people loved me.” Baba recalled that “Uday did not know the meaning of the word mercy… did things that even Hitler could not imagine doing. He beat us with cables. He made players play with a concrete ball. He used to watch and laugh when they kicked it.” Life was a living hell for these footballers.

When Uday would call Baba to his mansion to watch football and discuss strategy, Uday “would explode” when Baba would ignore his demands, telling Baba that he would kill him for his disrespect through hanging and cut out Baba’s tongue. Thanks to Saddam’s fondness of Baba, he was lucky to be alive during that dark period because Uday had no problem in carrying out those threats to anyone that disrespects him.

Horrors behind locked doors

Uday used the Olympic committee headquarters, near the Canal Expressway on the eastern side of Baghdad to carry out his sickening hobby of torture. It is a burned-out shell now, its torture chambers in the basement flooded with water, every floor a wasteland of burnt furniture and twisted steel. This building was equipped with torture devices that included a sarcophagus, with long nails pointing inward from every surface, including the lid, so victims could be punctured and suffocated.

Another device, witnesses said, was a metal framework intended to clamp over a prisoner's body, with footrests at the bottom, rings at the shoulders and attachment points for power cables, so the victim could be hoisted and subjected to electric shocks. Football in Iraq was vanished under Uday Hussein.

Under his tyrannical regime, football that is usually an escape for relief became repressed. Deprived of offering players the dream to leave the country and continuously threatening players after losses with torture and death, Iraqis were given diminutive reason to dream and to play for the national football squad.

State of the national team

Unsurprisingly, Iraqi football's standards plunged. From the Golden Generation of the 1980s, the team fell to 139th on the FIFA rankings by 1996. Even today the marks of that era are still damaging Iraqi football. In 2007, when Iraq was at its worst, with its political stalemate, daily suicide bombings, and armed militias carrying Kalashnikovs (type of Russian-made assault rifle) running around the country, killing and kidnapping in the name of religion.

These circumstances made Iraq an uninhabitable place for many people. However, in July 2007, screams were heard and tears were shed all around Iraq. Rather than serving as a cue of another act of violence. These high emotions sweeping the nation celebrated, for the first time in Iraq’s history, an Asian Cup victory by the Iraq national football team.

A victory that has seen a divided nation come together because of the power of football. After having the joy of the beautiful game strangled by Uday Hussein during Saddam’s reign and at a period when Iraqis felt that they had lost their country, the 2007 Asian Cup victory allowed Iraqis to feel that they had retrieved the football that was made renowned by Ammo Baba.Football literally amalgamated Iraq in the span of a 90-minute football match. The violence that had been occurring since the War broke out, even to the very day of the final match (two car bombs had killed more than 50 people), was quickly cast aside because of the Iraqi football victory.

That was the first good news the Iraqis have heard in many years, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians with all their different sects, Kurds, Arabs, people in Iraq and outside Iraq were celebrating the glimpse of hope and happiness the football team brought to the broken nation. If anything has come from the Iraq

Amongst all the international recognition Iraq had received thanks to the national football team, perhaps the most prideful triumph of the team was when football returned to Baghdad. In July 2009, for the first time since 2002, another team came to Iraq for an international friendly. Palestine, who are no strangers to war themselves, crossed into Iraq as 65,000 Iraqis filled Shaab Stadium. Iraq triumphed over the Palestinians in a resounding 4 – 0 victory, with the onlookers chanting, “With our blood and soul, we will sacrifice for Iraq.” The magnitude of the occurrence cannot be more significant as the chant can convey tears to Iraqis around the world. Having functioned as one of Uday’s favorite torture chambers, Shaab Stadium was finally home to the beautiful game again. The historic game provided another promise of hope, possibly nearly as powerful as the fall of the Saddam statue replayed on Western television, that the atrocious Hussein regime was finally over.

Iraq along with Iraqi football is still recuperating from the War and the Hussein regime, and has had been hindered by controversy in recent years. Former Iraqi footballer, Abdul Qadir Zainal commented that, “In the last 35 years of Iraqi football, we never had a problem this serious. Now I really fear for the future of Iraqi football.” The path to recovery is not easy, and given other events since 2009, it can be seen that more work needs to be done to improve the outlook of Iraqi football.”

When looking at Iraq and looking back at the destruction the country suffered, one would never guess that the nation have time or the stability to love football; let alone the resources to develop a successful national side. However, the Iraqi Olympic team qualified and will be competing in this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio for the first time since 2004.

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