In Iraq, football under Saddam Hussein was life or death—quite literally. Uday Hussein, Saddam's oldest son, was in charge of the Iraqi team from 1984 to the early 2000s, and under his watch, they achieved international recognition. Unfortunately, under Uday Hussein, football player torture and brutality reached unparalleled levels of sadism.
Players were beaten and exposed to days of vicious treatment; they lived in fear that Uday would have the whole Iraqi soccer team executed if they lost. Former Iraqi football players have come forward to talk about what they endured and what has happened to them since their days on the field for Iraq. 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.
A Lost Match Could Result In A Sewage Bath
Former Iraqi soccer player Sharar Haydar recalled an incident after the team lost a match to Jordan during which he was dragged across pavement on his back with two other players. About the torture, Haydar said, "[Uday's men] took off our shirts, tied our feet together and pulled our knees over a bar as we lay on our backs. Then they dragged us over pavement and concrete, pulling the skin off our backs... [and] pulled us through a sandpit to get sand in our backs. Finally, they made us climb a ladder and jump into a vat of raw sewage. They wanted to get our wounds infected."
The torture didn't stop there, and Haydar was confined to prison and flogged daily. Uday wanted to make an example of his athletes and scare the masses with his treatment of public figures; imagine what he'd do to a commoner if he'd subject sports heroes to such brutality.
Players Joked That They Had Three Homes—The Field, Their Actual Houses, And Uday's Prison
Iraqi players were accustomed to Uday's practices and came to expect spending time in prison. According to former player Ahmed Radi, "We would joke that we had three homes—our own houses, the stadium, and jail."
Radi, who went on to coach the Iraqi team, stated that it was bizarre to be venerated on the field and by fans but to have the threat of torture hanging over him at all times. If Uday wasn't pleased, players would find themselves in prison for days or weeks at a time.
Jailed Players Were Forced To Kick Around A Concrete Ball
In addition to beatings and imprisonment, there were punishments like 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 Uday with his hands bound at his sides while the President's son slapped and punched him repeatedly.
In order to avoid making a mistake, players often refused to kick the ball at all, especially for penalty shots. Players realized that only those individuals who touch the ball would be punished, so they simply stopped kicking it. Abbas Rahim Zair was one of only three players on the team that would attempt to make penalty shots. On one occasion when he missed, it landed him in jail for three weeks.
During Halftime, Uday Would Phone The Locker Room And Threaten Players
Even though former Iraqi players indicate that Uday never seemed to understand soccer, nor did he have much interest in the sport, he would watch games intensely. If he saw that a player wasn't doing well, he'd call the locker room during halftime and threatened to "cut off players' legs and feed them to ravenous dogs."
If that wasn't enough, the players were forced to watch a video before each match that featured Uday threatening them. Players were often too scared during the games to play with much success.