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Iraq’s German coach wants to return

Berlin: After leaving Baghdad in a hurry just before the war started, German coach Bernd Stange now hopes to gather Iraq’s national soccer team together for a series of post-war international friendlies.

“Football for me represents peace and that’s why we should get back to playing again as soon as possible,” said Stange, 54, who signed a four-year contract to coach Iraq last year.

“I’d like to get my team together and go on an international tour with them, perhaps to London or other cities. Right up to the war they kept playing the championship, they’re all fit.

“They’re professional sportsmen but they’re not getting what’s needed there now, lacking water and proper nutrition,” Stange said in an interview.

He stayed in telephone contact with his assistants and Iraqi football association officials until a few days after the war started and knew first division matches were being played up until Baghdad was invaded by US forces in early April.

“The telephone network has been badly damaged and it’s impossible to get through right now,” he SAID. “The national team kept training right up until the war reached Baghdad but after that it was no longer possible to practise.”

Stange said Olympic qualification matches with Vietnam set for April had been postponed indefinitely by Fifa due to the war. He believes Iraq still have an excellent chance of reaching the World Cup finals in 2006.

“We were ahead of Scotland, Wales and Austria in the Fifa rankings in February and ranked fifth in Asia,” Stange said. “We have a good team that plays well together, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis and Christians all play in harmony on the pitch.”

Saddam’s payroll

Rejecting suggestions he might not be allowed to coach because he was on Saddam Hussein’s payroll, Stange said he had never met or had anything to do with the ousted Iraqi President or his son Uday, the head of Iraq’s football association and Olympic committee.

Stange drew widespread criticism in Germany for posing for a photograph during his contract negotiations in Baghdad last year in front of a giant Saddam portrait.

“I never had any contact at all with Saddam or Uday,” Stange bristled. “Their names aren’t on any of my or contracts. My contact has been with the Iraq football association and FA vice president.” (Reuters)

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