In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Soccer Players Faced Extreme Torture For Losing Games

From the late 1980s until the early 2000s, being a player for Iraq's national soccer team was seen as both prestigious and dangerous. Despite the team's popularity, players lived in fear of being beaten, tortured, or even executed for missing practice, under-performing, or losing a game. These punishments were directed by Uday Hussein, the eldest son of Iraq's then-leader, Saddam Hussein. After Hussein was overthrown, the grim truth behind Iraq's national soccer team finally came to light. For instance, Iraq had the only Olympic headquarters in the world with its own prison. 

Uday Hussein's crimes exploited vulnerable athletes and created a shocking disparity between the adoration they received on the field and the brutality they endured behind the scenes. The list below tells the stories of these men and how they survived.

  • Uday Hussein Saw Athletic Failure As A Disgrace To Himself And Iraq

    Uday Hussein took winning seriously and saw the performance of Iraqi athletes as a reflection of the country. He also viewed their performance as a reflection of himself, having been appointed head of both the Olympic Committee and National Soccer Federation in 1984 when he was only 20 years old.

    After international sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, the country's overall decline affected its soccer team. Hussein was reportedly unhappy with this, and increasingly used fear as a tool to motivate his players. As one former Iraqi volleyball player, Issam Thamer al-Diwan, put it, "Uday doesn't love sport. He loves power. He wants to show himself."

  • Getting A Red Card In A Match Resulted In Humiliation And Torture

    When team captain Yasser Abdul Latif received a red card during a 2000 game in Baghdad after he allegedly hit a referee, he was taken to Radwaniya prison on the outskirts of town, where he remained for two weeks. In the prison, his “head and eyebrows were shaved, and he was stripped to the waist,” a particularly humiliating act for Muslim men.

    Latif was also flogged with electric cables in two-hour increments with an hour-long break in between; the beatings grew more savage as time went on. He was eventually led outdoors into the winter cold and doused in freezing water. When Hussein visited Latif in prison, he urinated on the athlete's shaved head.


  • During Halftime, Hussein Would Phone The Locker Room And Threaten Players

    Even though former Iraqi players have indicated that Hussein never seemed to understand soccer, nor did he have much interest in the sport, he would watch games intensely. If Hussein saw that a player wasn't doing well, he would call the locker room during halftime and threaten to "cut off players' legs and feed them to ravenous dogs."

    Players were also forced to watch a video of Hussein threatening them before each game. Rather than motivating the players, the video and phone calls were said to make players more tense and in some cases lose games.


  • Hussein Displayed Torture Devices In The Iraqi Soccer Training Facility

    Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the International Olympic Committee investigated claims made by former Iraqi athletes, but could never find any evidence of torture. In 2003, however, near the former Iraqi Football Association building, investigators found a device that resembled a medieval iron maiden. Time magazine described it as "7 feet tall, three feet across, and deep enough to house a grown man... [the device] is essentially a large, metal closet with long spikes on the inside door that closes to impale its victim." 

    In 2004, the Iraqi Olympic Committee recovered numerous weapons and devices that had been used by Hussein's guards. Whips, vices, and metal masks were found, as well as the iron maiden. It was also learned that during the Olympic Committee investigations, players lied about conditions to avoid punishment, and recently tortured players were kept away from the investigations. 


  • Missing Practice For Any Reason Landed Players In Prison

    There was no acceptable reason to miss soccer practice, not even for a funeral or a sick child, and players often found themselves in prison if it happened. Once they were in prison, they were beaten across the feet, shackled to walls, or subjected to electric shocks.

    To make matters worse, there was no medical treatment available to players. Whether they were hurt on the field or off, doctors were off limits, and players could face additional punishment if they sought help.

  • Jailed Players Were Forced To Kick Around A Concrete Ball

    In addition to beatings and imprisonment, there were other punishments such as kicking around a concrete soccer ball in stifling heat. Players were also forced to endure "12-hour sessions of push-ups, sprints, and other fitness drills, wearing heavy military fatigues and boots." If a player missed several shots in practice, he would be forced to stand in front of Hussein with his hands bound at his sides while he hit the player repeatedly.