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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK
'I want to be the Iraqi Kevin Keegan'
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online

Hussam Fawzi shows his skills in London's Bayswater
Iraq's Keegan: Hussam Fawzi shows his skills in London's Bayswater
The Iraqi football team has arrived in London on a goodwill tour of the UK after qualifying for the Olympics.

"No soccer balls, no pitches, no jerseys, no nets for the goals, even the goal posts gone.

"Everything was looted, the federation destroyed, the building of the Olympic Committee destroyed. We had to start from zero."

German coach Bernd Stange's assessment of the difficulties faced by his charges in the Iraqi national football team sounds like the start of a movie synopsis.

The team has now qualified for the Asian Cup and also the Olympics. It has raced up the Fifa ranking table to 44th place, a long way above Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with all the facilities and wealth they enjoy by comparison.

I have the same thinking as a Kevin Keegan - I am a similar player but not in his league
Hussam Fawzi
Iraq captain
In the Hollywood ending, the Iraqis would win the Olympic gold and all get signed by Real Madrid.

In reality, they are just happy to be able to concentrate on their football after the terror of the Saddam years.

After the war British newspapers were full of lurid tales of Uday Hussein's fearsome reign over the national team, with players beaten on the feet for losing matches, imprisoned and tortured.

Now the national team has come to the UK for a goodwill tour that will see them take on Trinidad and Tobago as well as an FA XI before jetting to Florence to take on Italy.

And captain and striker Hussam Fawzi wants to concentrate on the post-Saddam future.

20 May: Parliament XI
23 May: Trinidad and Tobago
27 May: FA Select XI
Speaking through an interpreter, he said: "Players were playing under a great emotional stress. There was pressure applied on them. Now it is better.

"Previously our main objective was to get a contract abroad to escape the danger and get some sort of financial reward, even if with inferior leagues and inferior clubs.

"When players get punished in the West, they get wages taken away, but never their physical safety.

"There were tortures, there were imprisonments, but this is the time to rebuild."

It is a long way from his training pitch in Iraq with "no grass" to the opulent streets of west London's Bayswater, where he entertains passers-by as he does a series of tricks and keepie-ups, after the press launch of the tour.

The captain, fresh from the 3-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia that means they are on the way to the Olympics, is certain which player he still idolises most.

Bernd Stange. Picture: Robert Cianflone/ALLSPORT
I did my job before the war, and I was criticised... I did my job after the war and I'm awarded by Fifa and everyone is proud
Bernd Stange
Iraq coach
"Kevin Keegan, because as a child I watched him play.

"Out of my contemporaries in the English league, they play with pace.

"However, in a modest manner I have the same thinking as a Kevin Keegan. I am a similar player but not in his league. I hope to meet him one day."

Fawzi's coach, the ebullient white-haired Stange understands that politics is hard to keep out of sport, having raised eyebrows by going to coach in Iraq under Saddam.

"I did my job before the war, and I was criticised. I did my job after the war and I'm awarded by Fifa and everyone is proud of what we have achieved.

"It is not the fault of players they are born in Iraq or North Korea or Cuba. Fifa has 204 countries and not every one is a Western democracy."

And he is equally voluble about the challenges he faced in Iraq, the appalling facilities, lack of a national stadium and home games played mostly in Jordan, as he is about the burgeoning skills of his "boys".

'Horrible pitch'

"We had to go by car from house to house to bring the 50 players. It was 50 degrees, no air conditioning, no water for the showers, no physiotherapy, nothing.

"It is a horrible pitch. The stadium is under reconstruction.

"The Germans won the world cup in 1954 after the war. Sometimes it is possible to make results without money or big support.

"We play attacking soccer. The boys have fantastic skills. They have big hearts, they can fight.

"It would be great to bring the Iraqis to the World Cup."

Montserrat, bottom of Fifa's 204-nation ranking list, whose pitches were destroyed by volcanic eruption, or Afghanistan, 197th, who recently scrapped their team after nine players absconded on a trip to Italy, have arguably much steeper mountains to climb.

But Iraq has still scored a magnificent victory in returning to its former status as one of Asia's footballing superpowers.

And Fawzi says young players in Iraq have a dream.

"Among most Iraqis they have a feeling that while there is a [Zinedine] Zidane who is of Arabic origin... they hold the hope they could also be discovered and show the world what they are capable of."

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