Iraq doesn't seem to be the place for sportsmen. A news story this week reported how a striker, on the verge of scoring a goal, was shot dead by a fan of the opposing team. The story did not reveal what penalty the shooter received – a red card from the ref would seem hugely inappropriate as well as being technically invalid as he wasn't a player. It would seem to me that the referee's only option would be to call the match off – it would be hard to do anything else but ... this was Iraq and things are clearly done a little differently over there. When Uday Hussein, the loathsome son of Saddam, ran the Iraqi national football squad, he employed some very unusual motivational techniques. If the team lost a game, they would be beaten on the soles of their feet – an especially dumb place to hurt, since this presumably made them play even worse the next time.
Another far more imaginative punishment was to hurl losing players into raw sewage. This is such an extraordinary concept that it takes quite a while to get one's head round it. Was the raw sewage brought to a certain place for this very purpose or were the players transported to a raw sewage depository and hurled into vats of the stuff?
It defies belief and I'm just surprised that there were no stories of Uday using his collection of wild animals – which included lions and tigers – to "motivate" the wretched national team. As tempting as the concept sounds of introducing similar techniques to the UK's crop of overpaid footballing prima donnas, I don't think that it's something we're going to see in the near future.
What it does make you wonder, however, is why any Iraqi in their right mind would ever want to play for their country. Presumably, people knew what Uday was up to. They must have jumped for joy when the selection list was pinned to the door and they weren't on it.
The world of Middle Eastern sports has never been that developed. Recently, some rich Gulf states have started convincing Kenyans to run for them, so there were a couple of surprising medals for countries such as Qatar in the Olympics. North African countries like Morocco and Algeria have always had good track records in distance running but the Levantine region, in which I grew up, never really managed any huge sporting achievements. It's not that there weren't any opportunities – Lebanon, for instance, is abundant in skiing and tennis and swimming.
I remember one Winter Olympics when they had a man representing them in the men's downhill. The country waited agog for his turn, only to watch him descend about two minutes slower than everybody else while waving to a crowd who were roaring their approval. He became an Eddie the Eagle figure in Beirut for a while and I for one was impressed enough that he'd gone to the Olympics. Last year, I went on a skiing holiday in Iran (as you do) – there are impressive slopes just two hours from Tehran.
The reason, however, why there have never been any women skiers representing Iran soon became very clear. The slopes were segregated by a fence – with women skiing on one side and men on the other. The men were pretty good but most of the women were hopeless.
When I asked why I was told that it was because all of the ski instructors were men and not allowed to teach women. The only great female skier I met there had disguised herself as a boy in order to learn.
Lebanon's relative non-appearance on the international sports scene has a lot to do with the turbulent political situation. Sometimes, however, you would imagine this could have helped – the main golf course in Beirut, for example. The Lebanese are keen golfers and, over 15 or so years of on-off warfare, the course has gained quite a significant number of extra bunkers made by wayward rockets.
You would have thought this might have made them better players but there is no sign of any on the PGA Tour. I was born in Beirut so could technically qualify ... keep an eye out for me next year at Pebble Beach.
My cross-Channel cricket conundrum
Much excitement as the recent good weather meant I played my first game of French cricket with my four-year-old son... Why is it French, though?Reuse content