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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 19:38 GMT 20:38 UK
Football fever returns to Iraq
Friday's football game
Football is Iraq's favourite sport
Thousands of Iraqi football fans have turned out to watch the first big sporting event in Baghdad since the end of the war.

Spectators paid $0.75 each to watch Iraq's two top teams, al-Zawra and the police academy side al-Shurta, play a pre-season friendly. Al-Shurta won 2-1.

During the match the crowd chanted "Where is Uday?" - referring to Saddam Hussein's eldest son, who until recently ran the Iraqi Football Association (IFA) and is said to have tortured players who played badly.

The new sport is coming! The new freedom is coming!
Former Iraqi footballer
A former member of Iraq's national team and currently al-Zawra's coach, Ahmed Radi, said the players could get back to playing football for pleasure, rather than in fear.

Iraqi sports officials say the national team plans to resume training immediately, hoping to be able to play qualifying matches for next year's Olympic Games in Athens.

Uday's reign of terror

There was a relaxed and happy atmosphere at the al-Zawra stadium, as the long-awaited match - delayed twice in the past week - finally began.

Uday Saddam
Uday kept an iron grip on Iraqi football for nearly 20 years

The crowd watched in bright sunshine, as the Iraqi champions al-Shurta edged their rivals by one goal.

But the fans also shouted reminders of the recent past.

"Where is Uday? Where is the man who persecuted you?" they chanted.

Many footballers spoke of torture, imprisonment and beatings by Uday and his henchmen just because players lost a match.

"I was punished five or six times," recalled Mr Radi.

"Three times they cut off my hair - this is a psychological punishment. Three times they locked me up, the first time for two days, the second for one day, and the final time for seven days," he said.

Other players said Uday's favourite punishment was caning the feet.

They also said he liked to publicly humiliate athletes by forcing them to play after shaving their heads.

Rebuilding the team

Although the IFA - like the Iraqi Olympic Committee - is now in shambles, Iraqi football chiefs said the team would reassemble and begin training later in the week.

Fans at Friday's game
Iraqi fans hope the national team will qualify for next year's Olympics

The national team is currently managed by a German, Bernd Stange, who left Baghdad when the war started and has not yet returned.

But Mr Stange has pledged to rebuild the squad.

He has already asked the Asian Football Confederation to reschedule the Olympic qualifiers to give Iraq a fair chance.

"The new sport is coming! The new freedom is coming!" said a former Iraqi player watching the game on Friday.

Mr Radi said the Iraqi national team had already been invited to championships due to be held in Saudi Arabia in August.

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