Baghdad FC: Iraq's football story by Simon Freeman

A game of life and death
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The Independent Culture

By the time the ersatz monarchy had been deposed and the army had set about forging a unified state, football had acquired national coverage and the team was a rare authentic expression of national identity. Under Saddam Hussein, clubs were handed out to his extended family and the military. Cheating, corruption and gambling were widespread and ultimate authority for sport was given to his sadistic, indeed psychotic, older son Uday. Football under Uday was a litany of torture and intimidation.

These are stories worth telling but they can only be extracted and ordered from Baghdad FC by a heroic act of mental editing. Simon Freeman, who has written in haste, has not been well served by his editors. They might have said that unless you have an exceptional story, or you are stylist of the order of Ryszard Kapuscinski, then the story of the writing of a book is no substitute for anything else. Freeman has neither excuse.

Great swathes of text on how and why his research would or would not work on TV or - shock, horror! - that information on the internet about Iraq is often unreliable should have been red-lined. Then the excruciating asides on the significance of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and a garbled accounts of the rise of modern football economics could have been deleted.

In a book suitably slimmed down, one could have focused on the interesting stories Freeman has followed: like that of Bernd Stange, the ex-Stasi informer who took on the job of managing the national team under Saddam; of Ammo Baba, an Assyrian Christian, Iraq's greatest player in the 1950s and 1960s, who has survived under every football regime by trimming his sails; and of the extraordinary lengths to which people have gone in postwar Iraq to recreate a functioning football infrastructure.

Freeman is good on the grotesque officials of the post-reconstruction Iraqi FA but strangely prurient about the drunken boys who followed Iraq's progress to the semi-finals of the 2004 Olympics. Some of the best stories concern the American occupation forces' complete lack of interest in football. They parked heavy armour on the national stadium pitch, so ruining it; a perfect example of the breathtaking cultural ignorance of America's elites.

But these stories, like many others, are second-hand. Transcripts of testimony to the unbelievable viciousness of Uday in his treatment of sportspeople fill much of the first and last third of the book. All of this is interesting material, but it screams out for editorial direction and a whiff of something more direct and immediate. Freeman, despite writing the story of Iraqi football, has not been to Iraq. Fair enough: I'm not going either. As he rightly argues, it would have been impossibly expensive and dangerous to go. No doubt John Murray's advances are as generous as their editing is competent.

David Goldblatt's 'World Football Yearbook' is published by Dorling Kindersley