“There was a time when the song of the birds, the smell of the flowers, music of various festivals and happy faces existed in Iraq. And, the people in Iraq loved football”
When you read the name Iraq, immediately, your brain signals about all the negative subjects, but the Lions of Mesopotamia – is a nation, not only known for its rich and venerated history as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, and the birthplace of revered artistic talent like Kadhim Al Saher, but also for its cherished football culture and folklore.
There was a time when the song of the birds, the smell of the flowers, music of various festivals and happy faces existed in Iraq. And, the people in Iraq loved football.
Iraq Football Team boasted with some of the most gifted players ever seen in the Arab world and possibly in the continent itself, reached new heights, winning many titles and achieving plenty of 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.
Among the gifted players representing those glory years were star players like Hussain Saeed and Ahmed Radhi, two revered and feared strikers in their prime, and the late icon Amu Baba, who managed the national side on six different occasions from 1978 to 1996. They all played a huge role in the country’s success on the pitch and in its rise as a well-respected and esteemed football stable.
The darkest era
Despite the period of dominance and success on the football pitch, the land between two rivers took an unexpected tilt for the worst: a brutal period under the regime of the Hussein family who took over the country in 1979.
The sport, in particular, underwent a rough period when Saddam Hussein assigned his sadistic and violent son, Uday Hussien, to take over as head of both the Iraqi Football Association and Olympic Committee in 1984. During his reign, Iraqi athletes were threatened, beaten and even caned if they lost a match.
“You knew that if you didn’t play well, Uday would do something bad,” Ahmad-Rahim Hamad, a young striker in that squad, told FourFourTwo in 2007.
“I loved Kevin Keegan, he was my best player and I had a perm like him. Uday shaved everybody’s hair. That’s when I lost my perm.”
Uday’s sickening taste for brutality was nurtured during his time in charge of Iraqi football. The beatings got worse. According to those who managed to flee the country, Uday was personally involved in the torture of several footballers, boxers and wrestlers. One practice match, after an unsuccessful World Cup qualifier, was played with a concrete football.
By the end of the 90s, he was throwing tortured sportsmen and women into vats of sewage to infect their wounds.
“We don’t speak of the past,” he said before the suspension when asked about Iraq’s experiences at Mexico ’86. “No players have suffered like Iraqi players have suffered.”
“Football in the Uday era was a scary and terrifying time not devoid of negative psychological pressure on all the players and athletes — it was indeed a depressing situation,” said Saad Qais – a former Iraqi international player.
“We used to be on the receiving end of humiliating and degrading punishments if we lose, and that massively affected the performances of the players in most tournaments that we participated in. I was once imprisoned for a month after a defeat, where I was tortured, beaten among other humiliating methods that no human should suffer because of a loss.”
“He was an aggressive man to all players and knew nothing in his life besides punishment and imprisonment, even administrators weren’t spared,” stated Hassan Jallab, a former player for Iraqi side Al Najaf.
The prison was like a military base, where secret forces were instilled to protect the former president (Saddam Hussein),” said Waleed Jumaa — a retired Iraqi player now fitness coach. “It was a terrible place mainly used for torture. The worst aspect of it was the people responsible for maintaining it because they were adept at torturing.”
“There is just too much to talk about, my brother. You brought me back to my painful past. I was once imprisoned for 33 days in Al Radwaniya, and I was bewildered,” former Iraqi star Abbas Allaiwi said, as he recalled his imprisonment.
“It was after a game against Al Talaba, where I was captaining my side Al Jaish. It was the opening game of the season – the mother of all battles – and I was a bit tense. There was a moment where the ref should’ve given a foul for my team, but somehow, he decided to play on and Al Talaba converted. That’s when I went up and confronted him. I told him to basically follow the rule of the game, etc. but that agitated the ref, who had me sent off. I got so livid that I spat in his face.
“Unfortunately for me, Uday was in attendance and I was told that I was banned from playing for a whole year. But that wasn’t enough for him: He told me that I wasn’t being respectful and that I should be disciplined, so I was arrested. And there, I was beaten with an electric cable 50 to 70 times every morning by his personal executioners.”
“Uday’s methods of torture and imprisonment led to the escape of Iraqi football stars to places like America and the country’s neighboring Gulf nations,” Iraqi star Mahmoud Hussain said.
“They were escaping from Uday and his clan, who were treating them in a way devoid of morality and any common decency. They were so, so cruel to such a distant point that even I don’t like to go to. I retired early because of such treatment, at the top of my game, where I was even shot by Baathist forces on my left foot – the golden foot, as some called it. No one asked for my rights as an athlete who represented the national team and Iraqi clubs, nor was I given any sporting entitlements.”
“Football is freedom, where a player felt free with his own actions – sportingly and privately – especially in a time where we didn’t professionally and without much money, and in service of their national team and club,” Tariq Abdul Ameer – a former player for Iraqi side Al Shorta – claimed.
“But all that changed when Uday came into the picture – fear and fright simmered into the players. Every player in the nation believed and felt destined that a time in Al Radwaniya was in the offing. And any player or person who entered Al Radwaniya entered the door to hell.”
Such intimidation tactics and subjugation made him a hated man, most notably from legendary footballer and manager Amu Baba, who continuously defied Uday’s authority, gaining the reverence and admiration of many Iraqis.
He was hated by Uday to such an extent that once, according to Hassan Jallab, he was “beaten in front of 50,000 in attendance at the Al Shaab International Stadium.”
“[Uday] used to call players before games and threaten them. Sometimes he telephoned the dressing room at half-time,” Baba once recalled.
“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.”
“Amu Baba, may he Rest in Peace, got called up by the Olympic Committee (headed by Uday) whenever the national side loses. They detained him there in spite of the fact that Amu suffered from diabetes,” said Saadoon Sadam – a former Iraqi player/coach turned sports journalist.
Impressive journey in Mexico
Amid such fear and anxiety, an ill-prepared Iraq Football Team landed on Mexican soil.
Uday had convinced himself that, not only would Iraq qualify from a tough group including Belgium, the hosts and Paraguay, they could actually win it.
Accordingly, Uday demanded that the team dropped its traditional colours at the last minute and play in gold. It didn’t work.
Their first match was against Paraguay at Toluca.
Paraguay scored the first goal and when Ahmed Radhi hit the ball behind the net, there was a huge controversy as the referee blew the whistle for halftime. Iraq were denied a great goal scoring opportunity.
Then Iraq met Belgium, where scored their first-ever World Cup goal rough Radhi.
And in the final group match against Mexico, they lost by just one goal.
No victories out of three games, but the fighting spirit of Iraq impressed everyone as the heads of the Arab region were lifted higher, except for Uday.
Ahmed Radhi, the star
Ahmed Radhi was the star of the World Cup for Iraq.
Radhi was a classic forward who could operate as a lone striker or second and even link-up play with the midfield.
Radhi was given his debut for Iraq against Jordan on 21 February 1982 by Amu Baba, who acknowledged his talent and supported the player in his first years of senior football. Coach Baba however left Radhi out of the 1984 Summer Olympics squad citing a lack of effort by the player.
Het then scored 8 goals in World Cup qualification, leading Iraq to a first World Cup finals, in Mexico in 1986.
With Iraq he won two Arab Cups, 1 Pan-Arab Games & a Gulf Cup, while he also did represent Iraq in the Olympics in 1988, scoring a goal each in games against Zambia and Guatemala. In 1988, he was voted Asian player of the year and the 9th best Asian player of the century in 1999.
Radhi started to make a name for himself after he was forced to switch childhood club Al-Zawraa for new powerhouse Al-Rasheed, the club founded and owned by Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday. Alongside fellow legend Adnan Dirjal, Radhi led the club to reach the 1988–89 Asian Club Championship final, losing to Qatari side Al Sadd on away goals.
He later had a four-year spell at Al-Wakrah in Qatar before finishing his career with Al-Zawraa.
Radhi’s legacy is not just that of a great goalscorer, as talented as he was. Having played 121 times for his country, captaining the team on a number of occasions, his voice holds a lot of weight in the country, and he collaborated with the United States to try to promote football as a unifying force in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The aim was to get an XI on the field in time for the 2004 Olympic Games, and they succeeded, with the team going on to stun the world in Athens and heartwarmingly secure Iraq’s best-ever Olympic finish, missing out on a place on the podium by one Alberto Gilardino goal in the bronze medal match against an Andrea Pirlo-captained Italy.
“The Olympics give us a chance to enter the new world,” one fan told USA Today at the time, summing up the mood back home.
Sadly, by then, Iraq’s political situation worsened than ever and football just failed to breathe in a land that could have been the pride of Arab in the international football arena.
Inputs from: FourFourTwo, These Football Times, WorldSoccer and Wikipedia