| File picture of a match at Baghdad’s Shaab Stadium which is currently under US military control
Baghdad: The friendly between Iraq and Kazakhstan had ended 2-1 in favour of the latter. Iraq had missed a crucial penalty, and all the players dreaded what Uday Saddam Hussein had in store for them.
Ahmed Sabat, rated as one of the most talented Iraqi footballers of his generation, told the story of that fateful day six years ago as he sat in his living room and watched on TV another game being played in some distant land.
“It was a friendly but we’d lost, and we knew what would happen once the spectators left,” said the 27-year-old, who lives in one of Baghdad’s more downmarket neighbourhoods.
“The players and the coach were made to lie down on the pitch,” he revealed. “And Uday’s men came and beat us with sticks on our feet and on our backs and punched us to punish us. We suffered in silence. The psychological pressure on the players was enormous, especially when it came to penalties.”
Uday, Saddam Hussein’s feared elder son, who is the ace of hearts and number three on the US military’s ‘most wanted’ deck of cards, had an iron grip on many aspects of sporting and social life in Iraq.
The 39-year-old was president of the Iraq National Olympic Committee, whose central Baghdad headquarters was burning till Tuesday in the wake of the American capture of the capital on April 9. Time magazine said it has found what may be the first tangible evidence of torture of Iraqi athletes, in the administrative compound of the Olympic committee.
Their reporters found a torture device known as an ‘iron maiden’.
Big enough to house a grown man, the sarcophagus-shaped device is a large, metal closet with long spikes on the inside door that closes to impale its victim. “There was a room painted in red in the Olympic committee building where athletes were held in isolation for days on end,” said Sabat. “We were all terrified of this room.”
Iraq’s state-sponsored sporting violence even extended to journalists who covered competitions and matches. One reporter, who said he preferred not to give his name because he was still afraid of ‘Uday’s men,’ said that such violence was widespread.
“I was tortured because I had criticised the government’s sport policies,” he said. “They took me to one of their special prisons. They blindfolded me and then tortured me with electricity.
“I hope that one day Allah will punish Uday for all the harm he did to us. That man was never a sportsman, but he used to take 50 per cent of the athletes’ salaries,” the journalist said.
The average monthly salary for an Iraqi footballer is believed to have been around 30 dollars, or five times the wage of an ordinary Iraqi.
It is likely to be some time before another international match takes place in this war-shattered country, where footballing passions run high and where people proudly wear the shirts of their favourite teams across the world.
Baghdad’s main Shaab Stadium has been taken over by the US military, which has deployed tanks around its surrounding wall.
Another footballer said some of his colleagues had managed to escape the omnipresent agents of the former ruling Baath party by using their footballing trips abroad to claim asylum in foreign capitals.
He added that Iraq’s youth team had lost a match against neighbouring Jordan in 1998 and “when we returned they drove us straight to prison along with our coach Naji Hamud. “The prison warders beat us, accusing us of being traitors. They kept us there for a month before taking us back to the club to start training again,” he said.
Uday’s men have however failed to extinguish Iraqi passion for the beautiful game.