Iraq – the Lions of Mesopotamia – is a nation, not only known for its rich and venerated history as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, and the birthplace of revered artistic talent like Kadhim Al Saher, but also for its cherished football culture and folklore.

The national team, in possession of some of the most gifted players ever seen in the Arab world and possibly in the continent itself, reached new heights, winning many titles and achieving plenty of success beginning in the early 1960s winning the Arab Cup on four occasions in 1964, 1966, 1985 and 1988, the Gulf Cup on three occasions in 1979, 1984, and 1988, and the biggest achievement: qualification to the World Cup held in Mexico in 1986.

Among the gifted players representing those glory years were star players like Hussain Saeed and Ahmed Radhi, two revered and feared strikers in their prime, and the late icon Amu Baba, who managed the national side on six different occasions from 1978 to 1996. They all played a huge role in the country’s success on the pitch and in its rise as a well-respected and esteemed football stable.

Despite the period of dominance and success on the football pitch, the land between two rivers took an unexpected tilt for the worst: a brutal period under the regime of the Hussein family who took over the country in 1979. The sport, in particular, underwent through a rough period when Saddam Hussein assigned his sadistic and violent son, Uday, to take over as head of both the Iraqi Football Association and Olympic Committee in 1984. During his reign, Iraqi athletes were threatened, beaten and even caned if they lost a match.

“Football in the Uday era was a scary and terrifying time not devoid of negative psychological pressure on all the players and athletes — it was indeed a depressing situation,” said Saad Qais – a former Iraqi international player. “We used to be on the receiving end of humiliating and degrading punishments if we lose, and that massively affected the performances of the players in most tournaments that we participated in. I was once imprisoned for a month after a defeat, where I was tortured, beaten among other humiliating methods that no human should suffer because of a loss.”

“He was an aggressive man to all players and knew nothing in his life besides punishment and imprisonment, even administrators weren’t spared,” stated Hassan Jallab, a former player for Iraqi side Al Najaf.

Abuses, torture and other intimidation tactics such as shaving off a players head – a common punishment – took place mainly at the notorious Al Radwaniya prison. A place which symbolized and represented the fateful and infamous Uday era that many who succumbed to his cruel treatment and ways would love to etch out of their memory. Punishments inflicted on players and those that provoked Uday’s ire ranged from shaving off one’s head to more degrading punishments like caning and, in the case of Habeeb Jaafar – according to Waleed Jumaa — riding a bike drawn on the wall, which sums up the torment players and those within the game endured, and the sadistic nature of Saddam’s infamous son.

“The prison was like a military base, where secret forces were instilled to protect the former president (Saddam Hussein),” said Waleed Jumaa — a retired Iraqi player now fitness coach. “It was a terrible place mainly used for torture. The worst aspect of it were the people responsible of maintaining it because they were adept at torturing.”

“There is just too much to talk about, my brother. You brought me back to my painful past. I was once imprisoned for 33 days in Al Radwaniya, and I was bewildered,” former Iraqi star Abbas Allaiwi said, as he recalled his imprisonment.

“It was after a game against Al Talaba, where I was captaining my side Al Jaish. It was the opening game of the season – the mother of all battles – and I was a bit tense. There was a moment where the ref should’ve given a foul for my team, but somehow, he decided to play on and Al Talaba converted. That’s when I went up and confronted him. I told him to basically follow the rule of the game, etc. but that agitated the ref, who had me sent off. I got so livid that I spat in his face.

“Unfortunately for me, Uday was in attendance and I was told that I was banned from playing for a whole year. But that wasn’t enough for him: He told me that I wasn’t being respectful and that I should be disciplined, so I was arrested. And there, I was beaten with an electric cable 50 to 70 times every morning by his personal executioners.”

Because of Uday’s cruel punishments handed out to players he isn’t convinced with or after a defeat, players and countless others not involved in the game – unsurprisingly – left the country in search of better and safer pastures away from tyranny and suppression.

“Uday’s methods of torture and imprisonment led to the escape of Iraqi football stars to places like America and the country’s neighboring Gulf nations,” Iraqi star Mahmoud Hussain said.

“They were escaping from Uday and his clan, who were treating them in a way devoid of morality and any common decency. They were so, so cruel to such a distant point that even I don’t like to go to. I retired early because of such treatment, at the top of my game, where I was even shot by Baathist forces on my left foot – the golden foot, as some called it. No one asked for my rights as an athlete who represented the national team and Iraqi clubs, nor was I given any sporting entitlements.”

Mahmoud Hussain wasn’t the only one echoing similar sentiments.

“Football is freedom, where a player felt free with his own actions – sportingly and privately – especially in a time where we didn’t professionally and without much money, and in service of their national team and club,” Tariq Abdul Ameer – a former player for Iraqi side Al Shorta – claimed.

“But all that changed when Uday came into the picture – fear and fright simmered into the players. Every player in the national believed and felt destined that a time in Al Radwaniya was in the offing. And any player or person who entered Al Radwaniya entered the door to hell.”

The intimidation and authority of the Hussein family came into play once again in 1982, when they took control of a substandard club called Salahudden, and achieved league success a year later through intimidating referees and opponent players.

This unyielding rule was again shone when Uday was head of the country’s football association. During that period, players weren’t even allowed to play abroad unless they pay over 60% of their salaries to Uday himself.

But what he was more associated with was his founding of Al Rasheed in 1983. Under his command, the club had the pick of the country’s best players including star striker Ahmed Radhi – a favorite of Uday’s.

“Ahmed Radhi was rewarded with money and cars like other players. But it went both ways with the thawab and akab (rewards and punishment) method Uday applied,” said Hassanin Mubarak, a Iraqi football journalist. “I don’t think he had favourites, however, when he formed Al-Rasheed he wanted Ahmed Radhi to spearhead the team.”

With such benefits and authority at hand, Al Rasheed became the best club in the country, ahead of more well-established names such as Al Shorta and Al Quwa Al Jawiya. They even managed to reach the final of the Asian Champions League in 1989. Such results and dominance also came with allegations of match-fixing and deliberate intimidation of opposing players and referees. Because of the skittish and uneasy climate Uday created, many athletes were reluctant to participate in competitions due to these threats against them and their families.  And such fear was in display during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where only four Iraqi athletes participated.

“A red card to a Al Rasheed player was forbidden, plenty of their goals were from clear offside positions, and every star player from an opposing side would somehow get suspended before playing Al Rasheed,” Salah Hassan – another Iraqi journalist – claimed. “They could get any player whenever and wherever without any discussion or argument.”

Such intimidation tactics and subjugation made him a hated man, most notably from legendary footballer and manager Amu Baba, who continuously defied Uday’s authority, gaining the reverence and admiration of many Iraqis. He was hated by Uday to such an extent that once, according to Hassan Jallab, he was “beaten in front of 50,000 in attendance at the Al Shaab International Stadium.”

“[Uday] used to call players before games and threaten them. Sometimes he telephoned the dressing room at half-time,” Baba once recalled.  “He talked nonsense. I told him to go to hell. I said he knew nothing about football. How did I survive? Because the people loved me.”

“Amu Baba, may he Rest in Peace, got called up by the Olympic Committee (headed by Uday) whenever the national side loses. They detained him there in spite of the fact that Amu suffered from diabetes,” said Saadoon Sadam – a former Iraqi player/coach turned sports journalist.

The sport took another turn for the worst when Saddam decided to invade Kuwait in 1990, which cost the cost the country dearly with numerous suspensions from tournaments and competitions, and clubs like Al Zawraa, Iraq’s most successful club with 12 titles, struggling financially while its national side had trouble finding opponents willing to play against them due to international sanctions against the government. Fan protests also took place in this period, when three supporters of local side Al Minaa were killed and 25 others wounded by Iraqi forces when they shouted slogans against the regime in Basra in 1992.

It was also during this time – the 90’s – where Uday’s indiscretions as the head of football to the world media through a former player of his, Sharar Haydar, who talked about his torture and imprisonment after a defeat to Jordan in 1992 to Britain’s Sunday Times after he managed to flee the country. Haydar’s revelations were later backed up by the likes of fellow exiles Abbas Janabi – a former secretary of Uday’s – and former referee Furat Kadhim.

Iraq 1986

Iraq in action against Paraguay at the 1986 World Cup finals.

However, despite the harrowing revelations and heartfelt stories retold by former players and officials who suffered under Uday’s sadistic and intimidating authority, the fact remains that Iraqi football achieved its most memorable achievement during this period: World Cup qualification in 1986, which remains their solitary participation on football’s grandest stage. Because of this, along with further success in the Gulf Cup and Arab Cup, some hold a hint of sympathy or a somewhat opposing view to the overwhelming consensus in regards to Uday and his harsh treatment.

Some of those include Ahmad Ali – a former goalkeeper for Iraq’s national side and Uday’s Al Rasheed, who says he was punished several times, including the common hair-shaving treatment on four occasions.

“As a goalkeeper for Uday’s side, we achieved many memorable achievements after we promoted both on the regional and continental scale,” he said. “I was punished, but deservedly so if you ask me. I am not defending anyone here and that I was the one who was probably punished the most, but deservedly so.”

He also continued to talk about why Arabs don’t let go of the past and move on, just like the Japanese after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

His sentiments were echoed to an extent by an Iraqi football archives collector, Abdullah, or Iraqi Football Memories as he’s known on Facebook, who also clarified that he doesn’t endorse Uday’s harsh punishment and treatment.

“Iraqis are divided on the issue of Uday’s influence in football matters – some love him, and others hate him,” he said.

“But as a neutral, I must say that leadership in any aspect needs someone who is tough and strict, and Uday fit that role. His entrance onto the football scene during the 80’s benefited the sport in my opinion. Just look at Iraq’s position and burgeoning reputation during that time, as fallback. Along with the quality and successes of a club he founded, Al Rasheed. His methods weren’t always dignified, but I believe were effective as Iraq’s impressive results show.”

“Back then, you’d know who your enemy was but today things are vague. Football stadiums then were devoid of violence and riots, as people didn’t bother standing up to Uday’s forces,” claims Shaker Mahmoud – a former Iraqi referee, who also doubted claims over allegations of match-fixing on the part of Uday and denied his involvement in such practices during his time as a referee.

“Yes, we used to hear of harsh punishments befalling players and coaches, but things back then were steering into the right direction – much, much better than the present. There was careful planning and structure, where you know when the league starts and when it ends, and when continental events are held. The league was better run back then in sync with other leagues from around the world starting from the beginning of September to May.”

Yes, the three above raise a good point concerning the successes Iraq achieved under Uday, but that doesn’t justify the horrible treatment and intimidation those involved in the beautiful game suffered. But also the fact that some hold some sympathy for Saddam’s sadistic son, also emphasizes the struggles the people of the land between two rivers have suffered since, from blanket sanctions to its brutal and illegal occupation at the hands of the United States and other Western powers which was the catalyst for local/sectarian divisions that have helped in the rise of a shameless Islamist extremist group, IS or the Islamic State.

All these issues have hurt the country in every level and aspect of its society, even on a football scale with an unstable and shaky Iraqi football association. This is the headlines Iraq faces at the moment: a nation hurt by sectarian divisions, poor governance, and threatened by IS whose extremism and zealotry have led to the exodus of thousands of Iraq’s religious minorities, especially its Christian community as well as the Kurdish–speaking Yezidis. Not the achievements of its youth side in the World Cup in Turkey, nor the rise of the highly-sought after Ali Adnan, nor its impending participation in the Asian Cup to be held in Australia, and not even its monumental and historic Asian Cup triumph in 2007.

Iraq will always be remembered as one of Asia’s great and fabled footballing sides, who have given birth to some brilliant and outstanding talent, but who have been hit and struck by one slap after the other by those with imperialistic intentions or who are just simply up to no good. One day, we hope that Iraq will reclaim its position not only as a footballing force, but as a secure and united nation.

By Omar Almasri

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona