Cheer and clothing in Baghdad

With the help of crutches, Mohammed Mansi manoeuvred himself with difficulty up a flight of steps to the upper-tier stand, wearing his domestically

produced Liverpool shirt with the sponsor’s name, “Carsberg”, spelled without the “l” — merchandise about as unofficial as you can get. And most of Mohammed’s friends were wearing similar shirts last Wednesday

afternoon for the first game since wartime at the al-Zawra stadium in Baghdad — tatty reproductions of the Real Madrid strip, Manchester United and Inter Milan.

Most Iraqi youths wear such shirts at any time, for Iraq is one of the world’s great football-mad countries.
Indeed, with fear and loathing of Saddam Hussein now redundant, you could say that football is the only force for cohesion, the only common language in a now riven country. As the sunlight turns the colour of deep honey in late afternoon, every scrap of ground beyond the squalor of the outlying suburbs becomes a pitch, with crowds gathering to watch.

Wednesday’s game was a post-war, pre-season friendly, played for the first time with the huge portrait of Saddam Hussein blacked out. It was between the al-Zawra club and the Police Service (even though the country has no police service, it maintains a force football team).

There is a frisson as the figure of Ahmed Radi appears through the tunnel in an immaculate suit, through the sweat, dust and grime. Radi is the only Iraqi player ever to have scored in the World Cup finals (against Belgium in Mexico, 1986) and is a close friend of the ruler and destroyer of Iraqi soccer, the now- vanished Uday Hussein, the infamously sadistic son of Saddam. Al-Zawra was Uday’s darling and his pet club.

The match starts badly for al-Zawra, the Police taking an early lead, but there is only one player on the pitch really, the golden boy of Iraqi football, Saith “The King” Hussein, al-Zawra’s striker. Hussein, now 32, was the star of the team that dazzled at the 1989 World Youth Cup in Saudi Arabia, who beat Argentina, Spain, Portugal and Norway before losing in the quarterfinals — to the United States. It was after that competition, Hussein recalled, that Johan Cruyff made a pitch for him to join the squad at Barcelona, “but Saddam would not let me go”.

“It was pretty frightening to play for Iraq,” said Hussein, “because every mistake you made put you in prison.” He was jailed? “Oh yes, many times, I can’t count how often. For a few days at a time. The sentence depended on the mistake. For a

defensive error, two or three days, for missing a penalty, maybe three weeks.”

This incentive system was the personal scheme of Uday himself, said “The King”. Saddam’s son would send his goons into the cells to beat up the offender. But, said Hussein, Uday’s thugs were themselves big fans, and — wanting their heroes to be on top form for the next game —would say: “Look, you shout and scream a bit, while we beat the shit out of the furniture.”

“Now,” said Hussein, “I may have a real decision to make. I want to stay and build the game in a free Iraq, but every player dreams of going to play abroad.” Rahad Amoudi, National goalkeeper from 1970 to 1984 (wearing his Gucci best at half-time), says: “Of course there will be a dilemma now — whether we want our best players to go abroad for experience or to stay for the domestic game. But I think that we must get our players to go abroad, for the sake of the national side.” The national side’s first engagement is to appear in an indoor tournament in Tokyo in July.

Up in the stands, the lads had other ideas about the future of the Iraqi league. Tariq Sala supports Inter Milan because their colours are the same as his domestic side of choice, the University. Tariq insists that “now all the big players will come from Italy and England to play in Iraq. We are very rich in oil, and for 10 years we have lived on the oil-for-food programme. Now that Saddam is gone, we can sell our oil for Zidane and Michael Owen”.

Mohammed in the “Carsberg” Liverpool shirt was disappointed to hear that the sponsor is an alcoholic drink, but Michael Owen is his hero. “I have always liked [Liverpool] best,” he said. “You can change your woman but never your team. First it was because of Michael Owen, but now my favourite is El-Hadji Djouf.”

Asam Ali, a big fan of Roma, said: “Football was the only good thing under Saddam Hussein. It was where we could leave all that shit outside the stadium and forget about politics. We would watch the games maybe twice a week, on either the Iraqi sports channel or Iranian TV. The Iranian channel is better because on the Iraqi one they kept interrupting the matches if there was an announcement by Saddam Hussein or the government.”

There is an exuberant innocence on these terraces that would humiliate the powerful but bloated European game — little flags hand-painted in Arabic script nailed onto sticks and young boys from rival camps jumping up and down together.

But the waggish humour is the same as it is all over the world’s stadiums.

The leader of the al-Zawra pack, Harda Mohammed, was imprisoned by the regime and has accordingly lost a few marbles. He urged the fans to support the resurgent Islamic Party, to which the Police supporters replied with a song: “Sadja, We Love You!” Sadja is a nickname for Saddam Hussein’s wife.

The Police won 3-1 and the crowd spilled out into the golden light of evening. Although the portraits of Saddam are now defiled, there is a merciless reality outside, where the stench of smoke fills the air and the crack of gunshots punctuates the sky.

A husky-voiced waif named Haida Mohammed said that he comes to every game and supports Al-Zawra. “I don’t like any of the foreign teams.” What do you do when you are not at football matches? “I play football.” And when you are at home? “I think about football and watch it on television.”

What is your dream for the future of Iraq? “That I will play for Juventus.” How old are you? “I don’t know.” —

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