In Iraq, young players dream of Premiership glory

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The Independent Online

The day they buried Uday Hussein was the day Iraqi football rose again. High in the mountains of southern Saudi Arabia the nation whose players had been tortured for years by Saddam's psychotic son have rediscovered their pride, dignity and ability not only to win again but also to play without fear. Now they are even dreaming of playing in the English Premiership.

The appearance of Iraq in the International Friendship Tournament last weekend was their first since the fall of Saddam. Their young Olympic squad beat their Saudi counterparts 1-0 in the opening game. The Iraqi team even has its own Michael Owen - 21-year-old Younis Mahmoud, a striker named man of the match in both of their first two games and scorer of a hat-trick.

Only a few hours before the first game, Uday and his younger brother Qusay had been buried in Iraq. "It is as if a great weight has been lifted from us," said Ali Riyah, Iraq's leading sports journalist, who was once imprisoned and tortured for a critical match report. "No more terror in our players' eyes. No more returning home to pain and humiliation if our boys are defeated."

It was, said Mr Riyah, not only ironic, but surely symbolic. "Now we are free to play the game all Iraqis love as we would wish." Two days later Iraq defeated the leading Saudi club side 5-1 and are now favourites to win the 10-team tournament featuring national teams from Syria, Morocco, Senegal and Iran.

Uday was the self-appointed head of both the nation's football and Olympic bodies. While the current Olympic side is still too young to have been exposed to Uday's sadistic excesses, the senior national team did not escape the beatings on the soles of their feet, toes broken by iron bars, imprisonment and threats to cut off their legs and feed them to ravenous dogs.

Several members of the national team received such treatment for losing matches, playing poorly or even missing penalties. So, too, did their former team manager Najah Hryib, who has taken over from Uday as president of the reconstituted Iraqi Football Federation and is here as head of their delegation. He was sent to Uday's private prison for 20 days when his team failed to win a tournament in Thailand, and although he says he was not physically tortured, his head and eyebrows were shaved as a sign of public humiliation.

Ali Riyah, now chief editor of Iraq's new sports daily Al-Qadissiya, fared far worse. When Uday took exception to one of his match reports, he was imprisoned, beaten and tortured with electrodes. "Uday's cruelty knew no bounds. No one was safe from him - entertainers, sportsmen, journalists. He hated us all. He enjoyed our suffering. He never inflicted it himself but liked to watch. He was really evil - far, far worse than his father."

Mr Riyah now has heart problems "and many other ailments" as a result of his treatment. Some players, too, bear mental and physical scars. After being sent off, the former national team captain Yasser Abdul Latif was sent to a prison camp, flogged with electric cable and then thrown with open wounds into a tank of raw sewage. A top referee who refused to fix a club match was also beaten unconscious and made to lie face down in sewage.

The tall, dignified Hryib, as the new face of Iraqi football, said: "Under Uday we lost all contact with the football world. He did not allow courses for referees or coaches, no books to help us. Now we are free again and must look to the future."

But that future is financially insecure. The reserves in the federation's account have been frozen by America, and Iraq's only major national stadium in Baghdad was destroyed by coalition raids.

The Iraqis know they may have to sell some of their best players to overseas clubs. Abbas Rahim has just become the first player to be signed by a Kuwaiti club from Iraq since the 1990 invasion and several of their players here have Premiership potential, notably Younis Mahmoud.

In the past Uday pocketed half the transfer fees and tiny salaries of all Iraqi players. A good performance might have earned them a house or a car - a bad one imprisonment and a beating.

Iraq's 20-team national league is due to resume in October. "When football is being played again regularly in Iraq it may help to bring some stability," says Hryib.