Terror on the football pitch

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The experiences of the members of the Iraqi football team reveal a lot about what life was like in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi team managers clearly felt that their counterparts abroad were far too soft on the players.

When any player has to take a penalty in a big match it is always a nerve-racking experience. Nowhere was it more nerve-racking than in Iraq. Few Iraqis dared to take penalties. One of the ones who did was a man called Zair. "Many of the footballers refused even to touch the ball, but then we realised that if no one accepted we would all be punished," the midfielder said.

On one occasion when it was Zair's turn to take a penalty, he took up position with a prayer on his lips and his heart in his boots. He kicked the ball and missed. He was taken away, blindfolded and sent to a prison camp for three weeks.

Techniques to motivate players included threats to cut off their legs and throw them to ravenous dogs. Missing practice sessions, even to attend a sick child or funeral, meant prison. A loss or a draw brought flogging with electric cable, or a bath in raw sewage.

A red card was particularly dangerous. On another occasion Yasser Abdul Latif, a former captain, was accused of hitting the referee in a local match in Baghdad. He was taken to a prison camp on the edges of the capital, and confined to a cell two metres square, with a tiny window high in the wall. His head and eyebrows were shaved, and he was stripped to the waist and flogged.

Latif was detained for two weeks. When he was released, he was unable to sleep on his back for a month. "Really Iraq was a big jail," he said. "But I never had any choice. They threatened me. If I didn't participate in the team, they said they would beat me again and again, and consider me an enemy of the regime, and that would mean death."

Although the torture of footballers was common knowledge in sporting circles, it evaded international scrutiny. Players described elaborate preparations to deceive Fifa investigators, who visited Iraq, with officials hiding those players still carrying the scars from recent beatings.

Now that the regime of Saddam Hussein has fallen, footballers are hoping those days of terror and humiliation are behind them and they can start to build the kind of team that Iraq deserves.

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