Tortured to success: a life of football under Saddam and Uday Hussein

Tortured to success: a life of football under Saddam and Uday Hussein

The psychology behind what motivates us as humans is as varied as it is complex. Circumstance is generally the precursor for what sets our needs and wants, shaping our paths in life towards the ultimate fulfilment of those treasured cravings.

Footballers are no different; oftentimes discovering their first couple of dribbles at an adolescent age equipped with nothing more than passion and a dream. As the years go by, the cruel realisation of life’s demands and responsibilities become all the more clearer. What was once nothing more than a hobby powered by unadulterated joy slowly transforms into a job in which money and fame are the overlords.

Of course, winning and respect from your piers factor in as well, but you would be hard-pressed to find many that could withstand the physical and emotional grind, only to be rewarded by flowery euphemisms such as “for the love of the game.”

Whether your motivations are intrinsic or extrinsic in nature is of little consequence, because judgement will be cast down upon your performance regardless. An unforeseen loss or a sub-par showing is sure to be met with social media lynch mobs and scathing columns in your local paper, but what if the consequences were far more sinister?

While most players throughout the beautiful game’s history have been afforded the customary criticisms that come with the profession, others have been far less fortunate. Over the past century, football has seen its fair share of dictators and tyrants interject themselves into the sport for personal gain and influence. Whether it was Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or Francisco Franco, the success of their methods has been a motley crew of results. For one ascending Arab footballing power, a new regime would push the scope of their dreams to places once deemed unimaginable, but it would soon become a nightmare that is still being felt to this day. 

As far as histories on the pitch go, the country of Iraq began writing their own relatively late. Founded in 1948, the Iraqi Football Association was led by President Obaid Abdullah Al-Mudhayfi and Saadi Jassim as general secretary. They would officially join FIFA two years later, paving the way for Iraq’s first official international match as part of the 1957 Pan Arab Games in Beirut which saw them draw 3–3 to Morocco.

One of the sides best players, Youra Eshaya, was no stranger to making history. In 1954, he became the first Iraqi to play abroad in Europe for Football League side Bristol Rovers. Ultimately, his journey abroad would only last a year but that was of little consequence. A trail had been blazed, and although these milestones may have signified baby steps for some of the globe’s traditional powers, back home, Iraqis were the ones strutting around like Goliath.

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As the momentum increased, so too did the eyes of the world. Romanian coach Cornel Drăgușin would become the national team’s first foreign manager in 1962, and just two short years later, the Lions of Mesopotamia would claim their first piece of silverware when they hosted and won the Arab Nations Cup. Another Arab Cup would join their mushrooming trophy cabinet in 1966 but success proved to be fleeting. A long and anguish-filled 12 years would ensue, awash with cup final loses and political uncertainty.

A bloodless coup in 1968 would re-establish Ba’th party rule over the country. As its president and prime minister, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr appointed his cousin Saddam Hussein as Deputy Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and Vice President. These new-found powers granted Saddam total control of the country’s security apparatus in an effort to prevent coups within the power structure and insurrections apart from it. In 1976, Saddam’s grip over the government would continue to strengthen as the weak and elderly al-Bakr became unable to execute many of his daily tasks.

Three years later, the 65-year-old Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr officially stepped down as president on the grounds of his failing health. Inheriting the lofty mantle, Saddam left little question as to who was now in charge. Within months, he had hundreds of top members of the Ba’ath party arrested and later executed under the allegations of espionage. Saddam’s use of murder was hardly new but its scale would grow exponentially once he became president.

It was, in effect, one of his most persuasive political tools because it instilled tremendous fear and discouraged would-be challengers to his throne. The example set forth by their father was not lost on Saddam’s sons, but for his eldest, inflicting pain and misery was more pleasure than business.

Almost from birth, Uday Hussein had a curiosity and borderline affinity for violence. As an infant, instead of pushing toy cars he played with disarmed grenades. By the age of 10, he was already shadowing his father to the torture chamber at Qasr-al-Nihayyah – nicknamed the Palace of the End; many political enemies were killed here, including the overthrown King Faisal II – to observe how Saddam dealt with perceived dissidents. By high school, he bragged how he had murdered his teacher for disrespecting him in front of his girlfriend.

As the decade turned, an inevitable and historically tragic war with Iran would engulf the entire nation. By 1984, thousands of young Iraqis were being ushered to the front lines, resulting in scores of dead and a demoralisation of the countries youth. In the hope that his son could help rebuild the spirit of the nation while also proving himself a worthy successor, Saddam handed Uday the reins of both the country’s Olympic committee and its football federation. Through sports, Saddam believed that a fervent nationalism would return, permeating through the sun-kissed football pitches to the trenches in the desert.

The appointment of the 20-year-old Uday would initially yield historic results. Iraq would win the Gulf Cup in his first year in charge, followed by the Arab Cup just a year later, however nothing could prepare them for what was about to come. With a dramatic win over Syria in their final match of qualifiers, Iraq punched their ticket to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which to this day represents their first and only appearance in the prestigious tournament.

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In the lead-up, Uday was approached with an opportunity to organise friendlies with both Brazil and England but rejected them, fearful that losses would tarnish the image of his families regime. The bizarre decision would just be the first of many from a man tasked with helping his team, not sabotaging them.

Despite the successful qualification campaign, Uday replaced manager Jorge Vieira with his assistant, Edú Coimbra, brother of the legendary Zico. Matters on the pitch aside, even fashion wasn’t safe as he swapped the national team’s iconic – and hallowed – green and white shirts with a mystifying selection of yellow and light blue. Uday’s selfish and reckless mindstate would prove to be costly, as Iraq arrived on to Mexican shores ill-prepared and mentally shackled.

A tricky group consisting of Mexico, Paraguay and Belgium was expected to be challenging yet many Iraqis held out hope that their golden generation would rise to the occasion once more. The Usood Al-Rafidain would fight valiantly in losing all three matches by a solitary goal each, nevertheless the early exit tarnished Uday’s air of invincibility. The aftermath would see national team stalwart Raad Hamoudi retire a year later, but the side would have one last hurrah in the form of a title at the 1988 Gulf Cup.

Despite all of their incredible success in the 1980s, much of what was happening to Iraq’s footballers behind closed doors remained a secret. It was not until Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait that the people’s disenchantment would become so public. Sanctions levied at Iraqi football would include numerous suspensions from tournaments and a lack of opponents to play in fear of becoming international pariahs.

Fan protests began to sprout around the country, but none was as heinous as in Basra when three supporters of local side Al Minaa were killed and 25 others wounded by Iraqi forces after synchronised slogans were shouted against the regime.

Nevertheless, no man defied Uday’s authority quite like the legendary Amu Baba. Having served as the national team coach on and off for the better part of three decades, Baba was particularly familiar with the threats continuously facing his players. He and Uday would often clash about team selections and who possessed the greater wealth of football knowledge.

Baba’s outspoken nature against Uday would garner admiration and cult-like devotion from many Iraqis, effectively shielding him from being killed because of the unrest it would unleash through the streets. Still, his lofty status could not always protect him, as Uday once personally beat him in front of 50,000 spectators at the Al Shaab International Stadium. “He talked nonsense,” Baba recalled about Uday. “I told him to go to hell. I said he knew nothing about football. How did I survive? Because the people loved me.”

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Under a cloud of swirling sands and hindered eyesight, the desert sun beamed through over Baghdad like a Broadway spotlight. Situated near the Canal Expressway on the eastern side of the city, the once gleaming headquarters of Iraq’s Olympic committee stood as the head of sport in the country. After the invasion by American forces in March of 2003, 21 days of major combat operations would engulf the nation’s capital, eventually leading to an overnight bombing by US warplanes of the building.

The once gaudy structure was now a burned-out shell, adorned with mangled steel and floors of charred furniture. Out near the entrance, a gold-painted statue of Saddam Hussein now lay limp and powerless across the ground after its head was cut off with axes and dragged away to an undisclosed location. Beneath all of the chaos afforded to the naked eye, an infamous basement remained, flooded and unrecognisable.

The totality of the horror and pain once inflicted within these walls of authoritarianism was a far cry from its current decrepit state. Despite this, many of Iraq’s footballers continued to tremble before its presence. The vividness of the Hussein regime’s demise had liberated a long-buried feeling of freedom for so many that suffered under their rule, but the emotional scars of torture endured like tattoo ink on its victims.

The infamous ‘red rooms’ are where most of the players would be sent to await their fate. The message behind the colour chosen to adorn the walls was not lost on its prisoners, as the prospect of bloodshed was alive and well. Uday’s sadistic nature held no bounds, as his selection of torture contraptions were out of a scene from a medieval dungeon. It included a steel casket, with long nails pointing inward from every direction, including the cover, so victims could be punctured and suffocated. Another metal contraption included footrests at the bottom and rings at the shoulders, suitable for suspending its victims in place for a barrage of electric shocks and floggings.

Although punishments such as these may have represented some of the most severe, others were hardly more enjoyable. Uday’s most mundane method would begin with a call to the dressing room before matches, or worse yet during half-time. A speaker would project his chilling voice to the team, often threatening the cutting off of a player’s legs to be thrown to ravenous dogs or a bath in raw sewage.

In case that was ineffective, misplaced passes or shots would be carefully counted and if a threshold was reached, players would be subjected to 12-hour=long practice sessions including the kicking of concrete balls around in 130-degree heat, draped in heavy military fatigues and boots.

Over time, the abuses and intimidation tactics directed by Uday would make their way to a litany of locations. The notorious Al Radwaniya prison would become somewhat of a second home to many of Iraq’s footballers. It was commonplace for them to bring pillows with them on the team bus in order to have something to sleep on in case Uday sentenced them to jail time after matches. Other punishments included the shaving of one’s head and eyebrows – a sign of humiliation in Iraqi culture – or the slapping and punching of a player in front of his teammates.

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Uday’s construction of an anxious, terror-filled atmosphere was purposely designed to motivate players to victory. The never-ending threat of being caned or sent to solitary confinement was aimed to marinate in the player’s conscious – pushing them past fatigue or any deficits in talent. Instead, the methods used produced quite the opposite, as the unwanted psychological burden would come to paralyse Iraq’s footballers.

“Football in the Uday era was a scary and terrifying time not devoid of negative psychological pressure on all the players and athletes,” 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.”

The apprehensive and uneasy climate Uday created would eventually come to a head at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Once an Asian force that sent 46 athletes to the 1980 Summer Olympics, just four would show their face in Australia. It was officially rock bottom for lovers of sport in the country and a brutal end-game, cultivated by an insecure madman using the only primitive tools he knew how.

Unbeknownst at the time, the sands in the Hussein regime’s hourglass were fast approaching completion. If relief was to be obtained from a sporting perspective it would prove to be short-lived, for another war was on the horizon whose reach would sweep far past the stands of football grounds. 

When Saddam’s 12 metre-high statue came crashing down before the world in Firdos Square in April 2003, a rosy picture of freedom and prosperity developed in the minds of many. In reality, much of the past 14 years has seen Iraq only inherit foreign occupation and terrorist armies. The country many once knew is now an unrecognisable mix of rubble and uncertainty.

Although the sludge cast down from so many directions could’ve easily stained the people’s character, their faith remained strong, evidenced by their improbable Asian Cup win in 2007. A team of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds came together and left all their philosophical differences at the door. At least for a night, the gunfire echoing through the Baghdad sky wasn’t malicious or deadly – it was celebratory. 

As one of the world’s best means of communication, football doesn’t care about sectarian and religious differences or your race or gender. It is there to unite, inspire and stir the imagination. Whether the sport can ultimately cure the country of its many ills remains to be seen but one thing still rings true: football has prospered with less and survived more. It will always be there, by their side, as the cradle of civilisation learns to live once more.

By Justin Sherman @JShermOfficial

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