Originally created 06/12/04

From soccer balls to security, Iraqi team has long wish list

AMMAN, Jordan -- When Ahmed M. Abbas leaves his Baghdad home for soccer practice, he takes escorts for protection.

When he arrives at a field on the other side of the city, he often finds that practice has been canceled. The reason? Other players couldn't make it because of checkpoints or fire fights.

Then Abbas has to worry about how to get back home safely.

"This is the frustrating story of all Iraqis," Abbas said. "We run around in circles 24 hours a day because our country lacks security, and that's a serious hurdle to our freedom and success."

Iraq has been racked by violence and instability since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship 14 months ago. Abbas' German coach, Bernd Stange, left for neighboring Jordan in April because of the chaos.

Stange coaches by phone, speaking several times a day with his assistants. He only sees his players when they're competing - all their "home" games are in Jordan because of the problems in Iraq - or when they occasionally attend training camps outside Iraq.

On Wednesday, Stange was in Amman to guide Iraq to its first victory in a 2006 World Cup qualifier, a 6-1 win over Taiwan.

Stange took over the Iraqi national team in November 2002 after stints in East Germany and Australia. He remained outside the country when coalition forces moved in, but returned soon after to "find nothing called soccer in Iraq."

"I had to start from zero because there was nothing left, nothing at all. No stadiums. No communication system to call the players for training - I had to go from house to house to bring the players together," he said. "I felt that's not the way to prepare Iraqi football players for the World Cup, for the Olympics, for the Asian Cup."

The Iraqi national team was once considered a regional power and until 1986 ranked first among other Asian teams, such as Japan and South Korea.

Today, "we have neither shoes nor sports gear, we don't have money, no sponsors and no source of funding, we don't have balls to play with, we don't have playing fields because they were demolished in the war, we have nothing at all," said Abbas, who plays for the national team as well as the under-23 team that qualified for the Summer Olympics.

Iraq's soccer organization used to be run by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday. There have been reports that the dictator's son, who also oversaw Iraq's Olympic Committee, ordered the torture of players who failed to perform to his standards.

Ahmed Radi, Iraq's best-known soccer player in recent years, has said he was imprisoned three times on Uday's orders.

Abbas said there was just "rumors" that Uday had players tortured.

"He used to send the three worst players to the field to train with the army as a way to humiliate them, but they were never tortured," the striker said.

Midfielder Qusai Munir has no nostalgia for the old days, even though now the team has to share central Baghdad's al-Kharkh stadium with other sports groups, all practicing at the same time.

"We used to play with fear in our hearts, but now we feel the freedom," Munir said. "We are players with persistence and determination to bring the Iraqi soccer team back to the international scene."

There have been achievements, including moving from 77 to 45 in FIFA's world rankings and qualifying for Asian Cup tournament in China and for Athens.

"I'd love to coach my team in the Olympics," Stange said. "If they make it to the second round, it'll be great. Not more. No medals. Let's 21 be realistic."

Stange said he has not received his salary for at least five months and that his team had only occasional financial help from a "bankrupt" Iraqi Football Federation. Stange said the team also has received funding through personal Western contacts and the Switzerland-based International Football Association.

The coach said he has considered resigning "more than 100 times" in the last year, but stays for his players - and perhaps out of a belief that soccer, by far the most popular sport in Iraq, can help inspire Iraqis as they rebuild their country.

"People give millions of dollars for war, but nothing for peace," Stange said. "Soccer is for peace."


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