Reconstructing Iraq on a Different Front

The Iraqi national soccer team is in Germany for a training camp, making it their first trip to Europe since the end of the war. German coach Bernd Stange says soccer is the best path to international understanding


photo: AP
Iraqi national soccer team players pose for photographers before their match against an Iranian team in an LG Peace Cup match in Tehran, August 2003. The Iraqi team defeated Iran 1-0

​​The national soccer stadium in Baghdad serves as a parking lot for American tanks since the end of the U.S.-led war against Iraq and the unstable situation ever since has hardly left room for anyone in the Iraqi capital to think of soccer. But despite the odds, German coach Bernd Stange and his Iraqi star eleven are in high spirits.

The group arrived in Germany this week at the invitation of the German Soccer Federation (DFB) and will be attending a two-week training camp in Bad Wörishofen in southern Germany.

"This is a great opportunity to play football again," Stange (photo) enthused to news agency AFP. DFB spokesman, Harald Stenger told Deutsche Welle the gesture was one of solidarity and humanity. "After the war, their (Iraqi team) stay in Germany will be a change for them, they can prepare in peace and quiet for a fresh start in sport and society," he said.

"We just want to play soccer"

A one-time coach of former communist East Germany’s national soccer team, Stange took over the Iraqi team last November amid intense controversy. At the time, the 54-year-old defended his decision to take up the post and said he had no political ambitions and neither were there any signs he would be forced to toe any particular political line in Iraq.

Even after the war, the East German reiterated he had had no contact to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, the boss of the national Iraqi Soccer Association.

But all that is in the past. "We want to leave everything behind us for a few weeks and just play soccer," Stange stressed. That's exactly what the Iraqis have been doing the past couple of days. On Friday they notched up their first victory in a friendly match against a regional team from the Allgäu 4:0 on Friday in pouring rain and with 300 spectators cheering them on.

Another highlight is a match scheduled in the coming week against Spielvereinigung Unterhaching, one of the top teams of the second German soccer league.

But it’s not just training and friendly games that the Iraqis will be pursuing in Bavaria, but also some serious goals like preparing to qualify for the Asian games in 2004 and the Soccer World Cup in Germany in 2006. "First of all, you need great enthusiasm to work under these difficult and complicated circumstances, " Stange told Deutsche Welle.

"But still we have our targets, we want to participate in the 2006 World Cup. And the first steps have been taken, some days ago we defeated Iran for example. But we also have to beat Saudi-Arabia, China and Korea now."

Soccer "an important part of reconstruction"

Ahmed Rahdy, the vice president of the Iraqi Football Association and a former national player put the issue in perspective. "We’re starting from scratch," Rahdy told AFP and added the Iraqis were suffering from lack of food and security. "There are more important things at the moment than playing soccer, for example medical aid. But soccer is an important part of reconstruction."

A scandal-tinged game

But even the game hasn’t been free of controversy and allegations of brutality in Iraq. Before the war, the national team was under the direct command of the much feared Uday Hussein and media reports on whippings and torture abounded.

A former Iraqi international player, Saad Keis Naoman alleged last year that he and his team mates were beaten under orders issued by Uday for poor performances on the pitch. Naoman claimed he was flogged and forced to sleep on his stomach in a tiny cell in the Al-Radwaniya prison in Iraq, where he was jailed.

But team captain Husan Faszi Naji told AFP this week that though Uday used to punish players for performing badly, not all media reports about the tainted game in Iraq were true. He said players were asked to take up arms during the war, but none of them were hurt. He also said some team members were able to sign up lucrative contracts in Qatar and Dubai after the war.

Back to normality with soccer

Stange said there was a change for the better in the atmosphere since the end of the war in Iraq, but added good training conditions and pitches were next to non-existent and most practice sessions were held in rudimentarily-fashioned fields in suburbs.

"The grass is high, there are holes in the ground. We have no changing rooms and no water to shower." Training sessions can only take place after 6 p.m. when the temperatures dip to 40 degrees Celsius and have to be stopped once it gets dark at 8 p.m. Stange said the streets were too dangerous after that.

The German coach however is banking on the qualities of peace and understanding that sport inspires to steer his team back to normality. "Soccer is after all the best way to international understanding," he said.

Deutsche Welle Staff

© Deutsche Welle 2003