Playing at home is out, so Iraqi national team rattles in goals on tour

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The Independent Online

There was no money for a local hotel so the team rolled up straight from London in a bus that was late before changing into kit that included two sizes of green shorts - too big and too small.

There was no money for a local hotel so the team rolled up straight from London in a bus that was late before changing into kit that included two sizes of green shorts - too big and too small.

The players then settled down to putting five goals past their English hosts while the substitutes posed happily for fans clutching camcorders.

The Iraqi national team - ranked 42nd in the world, which is well above both Wales and Scotland - were rounding off a successful 10-day British tour at the match in south Manchester.

It is grateful for any foreign field it can find after a war which left its football infrastructure as devastated as the rest of the country.

The al-Shaab national football stadium in Baghdad is in ruins; the national league was suspended in March because teams cannot travel safely, and the national team's German coach, Bernd Stange, currently manages his players by telephone after the kidnap of foreign workers prompted his country's ministry for foreign affairs to recommend his withdrawal from the capital last month.

The team's only option is "goodwill" foreign tours like this one, on which it won an exhibition game against MPs and lost to Trinidad and Tobago before Thursday's 5-1 win against an English semi-professional team at Macclesfield Town's ground.

The game turned on 11 minutes of ingenuity from the substitute Hussam Fawzi, 29, Iraq's captain, star and most enigmatic player, who carved out the team's fourth goal, then scored the fifth.

Fawzi is one of several players to have suffered at the hands of the late Uday Hussein, Iraq's former football federation and Olympic committee president, who is suspected of whipping, torturing and imprisoning players after bad results.

"I still find it difficult to speak about it," he said after the match. "There were tortures, there were imprisonments." Even those closest to the squad tend not to broach the matter.

"Uday seemed to lose the plot in the mid-1990s after a period of rewarding the players," said Yamam Mabil, an Iraqi television producer whose AFK Media company helped to finance the tour. "We think [Hussam] has spent time in jail, though he is reluctant to talk about how much corporal punishment was involved. He has certainly been hurt."

In an introduction to Thursday's match programme, Tony Blair cited experiences like Fawzi's as justification for the invasion of Iraq. "A poor result could lead to beatings and torture for players," the Prime Minister reminded fans. But Fawzi demonstrated his indignation about the invasion by refusing to pose for a photograph with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, earlier in the week. "I didn't like this meeting, this position," he said. "That's why I objected to the photograph."

Stange, the team's ebullient, white-haired manager, has stuck with the job with admirable resilience. He was attacked by Germany's tabloid press when he took the job, particularly after he was pictured beside a blow-up photograph of Saddam Hussein. His wife then refused to join him to Baghdad, where Stange's driver had been injured when two bullets were fired at his car. But for all that, the manager just seems happy that his players have come through the war unscathed, after rumours that they were to be conscripted.

"I was born in 1948 and have never seen war so it's shocking to me but the football we're playing seems to be a conduit for peace," he said. "I've said before that where football is being played no one will be shot. When they hear the word 'Iraqi' people seem to think there is some risk of violence but the only problem I have with them is that every one thinks he's a football coach and that he can pick my team."