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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
New hope for Iraqi football
By Hywel Jones
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

Training in the shadow of war

When the whistle went for the kick-off, even the big guys with big guns turned to watch. On a warm afternoon in Baghdad, Iraq's football team was in action again.

The chants of the crowd drowned out the thunka-thunka of US helicopters overhead.

Baghdad had already witnessed its usual mayhem that day. Now all that mattered was 22 men and a ball.

Within minutes, Iraq was one-nil down. A local Baghdad club side, al-Azawrah, had the pride of the nation under pressure.

It didn't bother the men and boys on the terraces.

Some wore the long, traditional dish-dash; others were in Arsenal shirts. All of them were enjoying a carefree 90 minutes.

Surging forward

Iraq's team has three things going for it. It has a brand-new bright-green kit. It has a committed German manager. And it has hope.

Berndt Stange used to play for Dynamo Dresden. Now he runs a squad which, like so much else in Iraq, is rebuilding itself from the ruins.

"There was nothing left after the war. No shirts, no balls, no medical things," Stange told me.

"There was no football association, there was absolutely nothing. There is only a handful of people, brave men, who started to rebuild Iraqi soccer."

Competitive soccer came to an end in Iraq in February.

The war put paid to the usual league matches. But it also ended the malign influence of Uday Hussein on the national game.

Saddam Hussein's eldest son was, by reputation, a sadistic playboy. One of his playthings was the Iraqi team.

Uday had the dictator's twin loves: menace and grand titles.

He was head of the Iraqi Football Federation and chairman of Iraq's Olympic Committee. He was also a man who, in the words of one Iraqi journalist I bumped into, knew precisely "nothing" about football.

One Iraqi player, Mohaned Ali, recalled the punishments handed out by Uday's guards when the team displeased him.

"They beat our feet, or they cut our hair or they punish your spirit," he told me.

Iraqi football fans
Iraqi fans hope the national team will qualify for next year's Olympics

"But now I can play free because I'm not thinking about those things."

Bright future

The players are thinking about the future: doing well in the Asian Nations Cup, maybe even the World Cup.

As the beautiful pinks and purples of the Baghdad dusk suffused the stadium, Iraq finally pulled a goal back. One-one. Honour preserved. Everyone got a touch of the ball.

In the changing room, the Iraqi team whipped off their green shirts and left them in a pile in the middle of the floor, a little like a village team after a Sunday afternoon kick about.

Berndt Stange was just happy no-one had got injured on the pitch. Or off it.

"I believe Iraqi football has a bright future, but we have to solve the problems in our country. We need safety, we need security for our soccer games.

"You don't know who has a gun. It's very difficult."

As Stange turned and strode away, I heard the voice of another football manager speaking to me down the years.

Bill Shankly, Liverpool legend, once said: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death... I can assure you it is much, much important than that."

And as I stood there and watched hundreds of excited fans stream out of the stadium, and heard a crack of gunfire in the dusk, I began to understand what Shankly meant.

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