Ammo Baba: Footballer and coach revered by the people of Iraq

Tuesday 01 October 2013 04:37

Emmanuel Baba Dawood, known as Ammo Baba, was the most revered figure in Iraqi football, both as a player and later as coach of the national side.

He was born in November 1934 on the RAF base in Hinaidi, Baghdad. His family moved to the civic cantonment on the large RAF base in Habbaniya, west of Baghdad, in 1937 and it was there that the young Ammo watched British servicemen play football games on the dusty fields of the base. Early on in his sporting life he excelled in track and field, becoming was one of the fastest 400 metre runners in Iraq.

Encouraged by his mother he started playing for his school football team, and he then played for the RAF Employee's (Assyrian) Club in 1951. He was spotted by the Iraqi Schools coach Ismail Mohamed and was selected to play for the Iraqi schoolboy's team in the second Pan-Arab school championship held in Cairo in 1951; he was named player of the tournament.

In 1954 he started playing for the Haris Al-Malki [Royal Guards] team, where he became a huge and instant success, revered by all Iraqis. He was an instinctive goal scorer known for his bicycle kick – or backward double kick, as it is known in Iraq.

His era is regarded as one of the golden ages of Iraqi football, with players like Youra Eshaya, who played for Bristol Rovers, and many others who became household names. In 1956 Al-Kashafa stadium witnessed one of the greatest matches played on Iraqi soil, between the Ammo's Assyrian Club and Taj (the Iranian champions). The Assyrian Club won against a side considered one of the best clubs in Asia at that time, and the game is still talked about in Iraq.

In 1955, aged 20, he made his international debut in the World Military Championship qualifiers and scored his first goal for his country in 1957 in Beirut against Morocco at the second Pan–Arab Games.

In 1958 Ammo was injured playing in the Iraqi league and on the orders of King Faisal he was sent to London for treatment. In London he was contacted by several clubs including Chelsea, Fulham and he was offered a contract by Notts County – who were managed by Frank Mill, who had been the Iraq military team coach. However, this was a time when Iraq was in its era of never-ending revolutions, and General Abdul-Karim Qasim had led a coup which overthrew the monarchy. The new Iraqi leader loved Ammo and he sent a special plane, carrying the head of the army and the head of the air force, to persuade Ammo to return and play in Iraq. Sacrificing his career abroad for his country, he returned to Iraq to play for the famous Airforce Club (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya).

In the mid-1960s the Arab Football Federation, inspired by the Pan Arab movement led by Egypt's leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, formed an all-Arab team by choosing two of the best players from each country. Baba and Qais Hamed were selected from Iraq and Baba was made captain. Regrettably the team did not play any international matches, facing only a few local Egyptian clubs, and was later disbanded.

Baba proved himself to be even more talented as a coach than he had been as a player. In 1971 he was appointed head coach of the Kuliya Al-Askaria side, as well as coach of the Iraqi military team, learning his trade under the Iraqi national team coach Danny McLennan, the Scotsman who coached 10 national sides in his career.

Baba was later dismissed as Military head coach. He issued a challenge to the new coach: in three months he would create a team from people who had never played football in their lives but who would beat his team. The new coach accepted the challenge. In three months, a game was staged: trailing 1-0 at half-time, Baba's side won 3-1.

Baba went on to become Iraq's most successful national coach. First named to the job in 1978, he was appointed and re-appointed several times in the Eighties and Nineties, winning a clutch of titles: the Gulf Cup in 1979, 1984 and 1988, the Asian games in 1982 and the Arab Cup in 1988. He also led Iraq to the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988, and won the World Military Championship twice.

Baba was courageously outspoken where others preferred silence. He was one of the few people in Iraq who had the audacity to openly confront Saddam Hussein's vicious son Uday, the president of the Iraqi Football Association. In return he did not escape Uday's vengeance. After Iraq had been knocked out of the Olympics in 1984, Uday's media machine went into full character-assassination mode, insinuating that Baba had spent most of his time in the US in bars and clubs, and that he had had several affairs with women. His loyalty to Iraq was questioned and insinuations were made about his past relationship with the British in his early career at the RAF base. This affected his marriage and he was seen on several occasions in Baghdad trying to convince friends not to believe such stories.

Ammo never forgot Uday's machinations. In 1992, at the title decider between Baba's Al-Zawraa side and Al-Jawiya, the referee ruled out a legitimate equaliser for Al–Zawraa which lost them the title. Ammo dealt the greatest insult he could to Uday: in front of 50,000 fans he refused to walk up to the podium and receive his medal from Saddam's son. His action dissipated the fear of the crowds and the stadium erupted, chanting his name. His bravery was matched by his humility: on occasions he would personally water and look after the pitch at Malaab Al-Shaab, the Iraqi national stadium.

The chaotic situation in Iraq did not spare Baba. In January 2006 he was attacked at his home by thugs, tied, blindfolded, beaten and robbed. A Christian, he was a true believer in the Holy Bible, which never left his sight. He said, "the Bible has enlightened His way and His love for people, and His forgiveness is based on the Bible."

Baba was buried at the national stadium, as he had requested.

Robert Ewan

Emmanuel Baba Dawood (Ammo Baba), footballer and football coach: born Hinaidi, Baghdad 11 August, 1934; married (two daughters, one son); died Duhuk, Iraq 27 May 2009.

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