As Iraq gets used to life after Saddam, Hassanin Mubarak recounts what his rule meant for football – and hopes all Iraqis can now enjoy the game in peace
When Saddam Hussein took over as president in 1979, Iraq had one of the most successful national teams in Asia and some of the continent’s strongest clubs. The regime quickly asserted its authority over the nation’s favourite sport, appointing Saddam’s personal bodyguard, Sabah Mirza Mahmoud, as head of the Iraq Football Association (IFA). His predecessor, Faleh Akram, was later executed on charges of opposing the regime.
In 1982, Saddam’s half brothers, Barzan and Watban Ibrahim, took control of the Salah-Al-Deen club in the family’s home town of Tikrit. With opposition players and referees intimidated on their behalf, Salah-Al-Deen went from being no-hopers to title contenders, finally winning the league a point ahead of rivals Talaba from Baghdad.
The following season, when the Iraqi army was suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Iranians, Saddam’s son-in-law General Hussein Kamil attempted to boost soldiers’ morale by commanding the IFA to hand army club Al-Jaish their first league title. Top Iraqi players were reportedly given a choice of joining the club or being sent to the front line. Al-Jaish duly finished the season as champions.
Next in the picture was Uday Saddam, the eldest son of the Iraqi president, who founded Al-Rasheed in 1983. Like General Franco’s Real Madrid and Ceausescu’s Steaua Bucharest, the club had the pick of the country’s best players and went on to win the league three years in a row from 1987 and an unprecedented three consecutive Arab Club Championships – a competition open to all champion teams in the Arab world. But when his team lost, Uday would order the players to have their heads shaved and in some cases imprisoned and tortured them.
At the age of 20, Uday was appointed head of the IFA and Olympic Committee; two years later Iraq qualified for their first World Cup finals, but only after Uday had sacked four coaches during the qualifiers and the run-up to the finals in Mexico. Some of Iraq’s players were interesting European clubs, but as former national coach Jorge Viera confirmed: “Uday would not authorise the transfers.” In 1988, Uruguayan club Nacional offered Al-Rasheed $1 million to sign striker Ahmed Radhi – scorer of Iraq’s only World Cup finals goal, against Belgium – but Uday was quick to turn down the move. In 1993, Iraqi players were finally allowed to to turn professional and move abroad. A few, such as Ahmed Radhi, moved to Gulf countries such as Qatar and the UAE, while many played in Lebanon, Jordan and even as far afield as India, Bangladesh and South Korea.
Uday’s change of heart was not a sign of his generosity but another way of making money for himself – players abroad had to turn over more than 60 per cent of their salaries to the head of the IFA. Former player Saad Qais, now in exile, confirmed that when he was loaned out to Qatari side Al-Sadd for two weeks he earned $10,000 but received only $2,000.
During the 1990s, the truth of Uday’s reign as head of the IFA and INOC finally emerged after former national team defender Sharar Haidar was interviewed by the Sunday Times a few months after escaping from Iraq. Sharar, who had been spotted by talent scouts at Al-Rasheed in 1986, talked about how he was imprisoned and tortured on the orders of Uday after a 2-0 defeat by Jordan in 1992. Another exile, Abbas Janabi, Uday’s former private secretary and press spokesman for 15 years, backed up Sharar’s comments and described what had happened to the national team after they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. “The players were made to kick a concrete ball around a field inside the grounds of Al-Radwaniya prison. I am not the only one who witnessed this,” Janabi said.
Before the invasion in March, the national league was made up of 20 teams from all over the country. Teams continued to move freely between Saddam-controlled Iraq and the north even after it came under Kurdish control at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The main Kurdish teams, Arbil, Duhok and newcomers Zakho, are financed by the local political parties, the KDP and the PUK, enabling them to compete with teams from Baghdad for the best players. Arbil came to prominence in the 1990s under the leadership of city governor and KDP member Franso Hariri, a former goalkeeper with the club who did much to enhance sports facilities and resources in the region. By popular demand the local stadium was named after Hariri following his assassination in February 2001.
The biggest surprise has been the rise of southern club Najaf, from the Shi-ite holy city that was ravaged by Saddam’s forces after uprisings at the end of the Gulf War. Despite having little financial backing and a squad of local players, Najaf have become one of the country’s best clubs. They won their first trophy in 1998, beating the police club Al-Shurta 4-0 in the final of the Mother of All Battles Cup, a tournament introduced after the 1991 Gulf War and named after one of Saddam’s speeches.
While football in Najaf is blossoming, in Basra, one of the places where football was first played in Iraq, it has deteriorated. Football there suffered as a direct consequence of the uprisings against the regime after the Gulf War. In 1992, three people were killed and 25 wounded after Iraqi forces opened fire on supporters of the city’s traditional club, Al-Minaa, who had been chanting against Saddam, Uday and the regime. The city continues to produce talented players for the national squad but many move on to play elsewhere.
Although all clubs in the areas controlled by Saddam were headed by members of his family or Ba’ath Party loyalists, the Jamhor (fans) teams of Baghdad – Al-Zawraa, Talaba, Al-Shurta and Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force) – are well supported throughout Iraq. All, however, have suffered badly from the sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Al-Zawraa are almost bankrupt, their youth teams are barely able to afford boots. The Iraqi national team has been badly affected too; banned from the Asian Games and other international competitions, they’ve had difficulty finding opponents to play, especially in Baghdad.
There is chaos now, but the collapse of the regime ought at least to mean that Iraq will no longer be a sporting outcast – Dr Jafar Al-Muthafer, an administrator working with Iraqi athletes living in Europe, has said that he and other leading sports figures want to return as soon as possible. Like the country as a whole, whether football in Iraq will have a bright future after Saddam remains to be seen – all Iraqis can hope for is that their destiny is in their own hands.
From WSC 196 June 2003. What was happening this month