Kooora Shaabiya Al-Irakiya (Iraqi public Football)

Written by Nezar Ahmed

Everyone would agree that Iraqi soccer peaked in the 70s and 80s and has been on a decline since then. Iraq qualified for the World Cup in 1986 and also coming to close to qualify in its first bid in 1973 and also qualified three times in a row for the Olympic games in 1980, 1984, 1988.

Other regional accomplishments can’t be ignored either like winning the Gulf Cup three times in five attempts (Iraq sent its second team in 1986 and withdrew from one tournament while needing a draw with Kuwait to win his fourth title), winning the Asian Games in 1982, the Arab Cup and Pan-Arab Games several times, Merdeka Cup twice and once coming second in one Merdeka tournament with its second team. Also during this period Iraq defeated Algeria 3-0 in 1978, Morocco which was the best African team in 1978 3-0. That result was a shock to the Moroccan side that they badly requested a re-match to be played in Morocco two weeks later. That game ended in 0-0 tie.

Iraq also drew with Turkey 0-0 in 1975, Finland 0-0, and East Germany 1-1 and defeated them 1-0 in 1979. In 1978, Iraq twice played Poland, who finished in third place in the 1978 World Cup in Germany, tying them 0-0 in the first game and losing to them 4-1 with two goals scored in the last two minutes after Iraq was pushing hard for the equalisers.

As all of the communist countries considered their players as amateurs, teams like East Germany and Yugoslavia sent their first team to the Olympics games. In 1980, Yugoslavia needed a late controversial goal to escape a defeat from their Iraqi counterpart. In 1984, Iraq led 2-0 and almost Natiq Hashim made it 3-0 when he beat the goalkeeper and it took the defender a miracle dive to save the unavoidable.

In the 70s and 80s, the biggest challenge to the coaches of the national team was the selection of the players since in each position there were so many first class players. In 1979, the great coach Ammo Baba had over 10 strikers competing for one slot, the third forward beside Talaba’s Hussein Saeed and Al-Zawraa’s Falah Hassan). These players included: Ali Kadhim, Thamir Yousif, Ahmed Subhi, Nazar Ashraf, Mahdi Abdul-Sahib, Dhargham Haidar, Mahdi Jassim, Ara Hampersum, Hussein Laibi, Jalil Hanoon, Abbas Zaghir and Saleem Malakh.

During this same era, the accomplishment of the Iraqi reserve team was as impressive as that of the first team. In 1976, Iraq was represented in the Palestine Cup by its reserve team. The Iraqi B team proudly finished second behind the host Tunisia: The same team that represented Africa in the 1978 World Cup holding the strong side West Germans to a draw. Tunisia was largely escaped defeat due to the endless effort of its goalie Sadok ”Attouga” Sassi. In 1977, Iraq 2nd team defeated East Germany 2nd team 1-0, Libya first team 1-0 and 3-0. In 1977 the Iraqi 2nd team tied S. Korea 1-1 during the first round of Merdeka Cup and lost to them in the final 1-0 with a vital mistake of the centre defender Shaker Ali. In 1985, the Iraqi B team won the Pan-Arab Games after defeating hosts Morocco in the final, the same team that represented Africa in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

In 1975, the Chinese national team visited Iraq and suffered three loses with top Iraqi clubs (1-2 to the Air Force team, 1-2 to the Police team, and 0-1 to the Navy Team). In 1979, Al-Zawraa Club toured the Gulf State defeating Bahrain 4-0, Qatar 4-1 and tying with Kuwait 2-2.

In 1970s and 1980s, if Iraq had participated in the Asian club competitions, clubs like Zawraa, Talaba, Jawiya and Shurta would have won them all.

In fact, If the IFA were to allow the Iraqi players to play abroad, Iraq would have tens of legends playing in top European Clubs. In fact, there were tens of Iraqi players then were qualified to earn a first team spot in any of top European clubs like Raad Hammoudi, Jalal Abdul-Rahman, Fatah Nasif, Qasim Mohammed, Salam Ali, Samir Kadhim, Kadhim Shabib, Abid Kadhim, Mejbil Fartous, Sahib Khazal, Rahim Karim, Sabih Obaid, Douglas Aziz, Nadhim Shaker, Hassan Farhan, Ibrahim Ali, Wathiq Aswad, Shaker Ali (defender), Shaker Ali (midfielder), Samir Shaker, Khalil and Karim Allawi, Adnan Dirjal, Jamal Ali, Hadi Ahmed, Alaa Ahmed, Mohammed Tabra, Adil Khudhair, Ali Hussein, Hassani Alwan, Riyadh Nouri, Sabah Abdul-Jalil, Natiq Hashim, Haris Mohammed, Ali Abdul-Zahra, Hussein Ali Thijil, Anwar Jassam, Wamith Khudhor, Mahdi Jassim, Ali Kadhim, Sabah Hatim, Falah Hassan, Hussein Saeed, Kadhim Waal, Husham Mustafa, Ahmed Subhi, Nazar Ashraf, Mahdi Abdul Sahib, Dhargham Haidar, Ara Hamparsum, Hussein Laibi, Saleem Malakh, Basil Gorgis, Emad Jassim and the list goes on.

The biggest question on why the Iraqi soccer started to decline in the 1990. It wasn’t because of the sanctions or the corrupted IFA led by the Uday Saddam Hussein, as some may suggest. Certainly the destructive influence of Uday and the devastative nature of the sanction did play some role. In fact, the actual cause is much deeper than that. The IFA was a corrupted organisation from the day it was established. It was of non-existence even before Uday came into the picture. With all the money, Iraq had in the 70s, the IFA failed to convince the regime on building decent facilities for both the national team and the main clubs. It failed to enhance the financial structure of the clubs and the players. In fact, the IFA had no budget to work with. It used to finance its activities through the gate revenue of the People Stadium, which by itself it was of next to nothing since the price of tickets used to range from 100 to 250 filis. Some of that money also used to go to maintaining the ill stadium. The national team used to be called two weeks prior to its participating in any tournament. Friendly games were often at the request of the opponent teams and hardly were part of the Iraq preparation theme. Players never got compensation for their own expenses during their involvement with the national team. They used to buy their own equipment.

In 1976, four players from Basra were called for the NT in its preparation for the 1976 Olympic Qualification namely, Rahim Karim, Jalil Hanoon, Hadi Ahmed and Alaa Ahmed. All those players used to played for Al-Minaa Club and employed by the Iraq Port Authorities with a pay of less than 60 dinars a month. From that, they had to pay for their expenses in representing the national team including their bus fair from Basra to Baghdad (two way bus tickets cost 2 Iraqi dinars), their lodgings during their stay in Baghdad, their food and bus fair from the motel to the People Stadium. All four used to stay in a motel sharing with four other people a single room. Each used to pay a rent fee of one Iraqi Dinar a day. The motel, which was located near the Revolution Square (Sahat Al-Tahreer), had one bathroom for the entire guests. I remembered once, Jalil Hanoon and Rahim Karim left the training camp after one week and went back home since both had no money to continue.

In 1973, the national squad spent over three days travelling from Baghdad to Melbourne and to arrived a few hours prior to their game with the host Australia, they lost 3-1 and missed qualifying for the 2nd round qualifiers for the World Cup by a single point. Their long trip started with a bus ride from Baghdad to Kuwait City that it took them over 10 hours. They had to spend another 10 hours waiting for their flight to India (A 5 hour flight), another 12 hours in India waiting to aboard their 6 hour flight to Bangkok, and 10 hours in Bangkok airport before taking their final flight to Sydney, a bus drive from Sydney to Melbourne.

By the time they reached the Stadium, they were still on the Iraq time zone, which is lagging some 12 hours. The same scenario happened again in 1982 World Cup qualification, except it was worse this time. The group that Iraq were placed in was played in Saudi Arabia in the spring of 1981. Due to the eruption of the Iraqi-Iran war in the fall of 1980, the 1980-1981 league was halted and did not start until Iraq completed the WC qualification games. The Iraqi squad was assembled a few days before their departure to Saudi Arabia.

Non of players had been involved in any practice since the end of previous season, almost nine-month earlier. The squad only managed two practice sessions before taking 14-hour bus trip to Jordan. Again, they waited over 10 hours before boarding a flight to Paris, another 10+ hours wait for another flight to Morocco. They arrived in Morocco in the morning to face the hosts in the afternoon in a friendly game. For the record, the game ended in 0-0 tie.

Shortly after the game was completed, they had to wait in the airport for another 10 hours before departing to Paris in route to Saudi Arabia which took them through Jordan. They arrived in KSA the night before their first game against Qatar. Ironically, the qualification games were played on an artificial pitch, which was a new adventure for the Iraqi side. The Iraqi players were not even furbished with the proper footwear that were required to deal with the hard and slippery surface of the artificial turf.

In their first game against Qatar, it took Saleem Malakh, who was highly expected to be Falah Hassan’s number two due to his highly individual skill, mobility, play-making skills and his thirst for goals, to suffer an injury that sided him for at least two years. He never recovered from that injury as his knee injury kept reoccurring. Indeed, after that injury, he did not manage to play any stretch longer than two months. As expected, Iraq lost the decider game against Saudi Arabia by a single goal after the referee red carded Adil Khudhair, the only Iraqi player that his fitness level was somewhat near normal.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the IFA was chaired by Sabah Mirza, his destructive involvement in the national team and the league club affairs is something that would shock even an outsider. In 1980 and a month before Iraq to play its qualification games for the 1980 Olympic, Mirza sacked the coach Ammo Baba for failing to accept his offer to coach the newly created club, which was own by Mirza “The Youth Club”. The coaching job was assigned to Wathiq Naji.

The night before the decider game against Kuwait, Mirza visited the Iraqi camp at the Al-Canal Hotel to find out that Nadhim Shaker, Iraq’s best central defender was not at the hotel at 10.00 PM. Mirza waited for Nadhim, who was on a date with the Iraqi actress Suaad Abdallah to show up at 11.00 PM.

Mirza immediately sacked the player and since Nadhim was still serving his national service duty, he was transferred to a remote military camp near Kirkuk. In all the previous games that Nadhim Shaker had represented Iraq, Jassim Yaqoub, Kuwait’s all time best forward, was yet to score a goal against the Iraqi national team. In the deciding game and in the absence of Nadhim Shaker, Jasim scored two goals. Iraq led in the first half by two goals scored by the best player on the pitch Nazar Ashraf.

Kuwait didn’t start their rally until Nazar on the instruction of Mirza was replaced by Mahdi Jassim, who was more of a midfielder than a forward since Mirza wanted to play defensive to guard against the two goal lead.

Kuwait scored the equaliser before netting the winner from a header by Marzouq Mahob from outside the 18-yard box.

Police Club goalkeeper Raad Hammoudi was blamed for the goal and was like defender Nadhim subsequently suspended by Mirza for one year.

FIFA was also notified by the suspension making it difficult for IFA to reconsider the suspension. In the summer of that year, the Iraqi team was invited to participate in the 1980 Olympic as a result of the western block, boycotting the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Iraq badly missed the efforts of both Nadhim and Raad especially in their quarter final game against East Germany. Iraq dominated the entire game only to give four goals solely by mistakes committed by the goalkeeper “Fatah Nasif” and the newly assigned central defender, 21 year-old Adnan Dirjal. During the tournament in the absence of influential defender Nadhim Shaker, youngster Adnan Dirjal was moved from the left full back to the centre of defence while Jamal Ali dropped back from his usual from the midfield position to play at left full back. The tactic proved to be disastrous against finalist’s East Germany, as Iraq lost 4-0.

In season 1983-84, the two half brothers of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Barzan and Watban Ibrahim took control of the administration of the Tikrit based club Salah-Al-Deen. They went from being a club of no-achievers to title contenders in a space of a few months by intimidating their opponent teams and by deliberately bad refereeing. Almost all the games were played in Saddam’s home city of Tikrit. Despite all the intimidations and threats to the opposing clubs and referees, Salah-Al-Deen needed to win their final game against Air Force club to land their first ever league title. A draw would’ve crowned the Air Force. The games only goal was scored by Salah-Al-Deen as a shot entered the net from the side through a hole in the side of the net. Air Force also scored two clear goals from Emad Jassim and Abbas Zaghir but were disallowed by the referee.

In season 1984-1985 season when the Iraqi army was suffering a defeat after defeat at the hands of their Iranians, an instruction was giving by Saddam’s son ln-law Hussein Kamil to the head of IFA, Sabah Mirza to give the Army club their first league title. The step was designed to enhance the moral of the Iraqi army. Top Iraqi players like Natiq Hashim and Mahmoud Hussein were giving a choice either to join the club or be sent to the front line of the war. The same threatening and intimidating tactics used to crown Salah-Al-Deen in previous year were also used. In a game against Students Club, the army team was lagging 1-2 when the 90 minutes was completed. The game was allowed to continue for another 30 minutes until the referee was able to give the Army club a penalty kick enabling them to tie the game. The same happened during the game against the Trade Club, 13 minutes was added until the Army club was able to net the only goal of the match. Likewise previous season, The Army Club needed to defeat the Air Force club to win the title. The game was delayed from the forth round until the end of the season. The Air Force surprised the Army club by scoring two early goals from Mahdi Abdul-Sahib and Hanoon Mashkor and was dominating the game ever since. During half time, instruction was delivered to the referee of the game to change the course of the match. The first thing the referee did in the start of the second half was to red carded two players from the Air Force (Mahdi Abdul-Sahib and I believe Hussein Ali Thijil).

The following season, Uday Saddam got involved and the first thing he did was to establish a team called Al-Rasheed Club. Nearly every national player with the exception of Police Club keeper Raad Hammoudi and Talaba’s forward Hussein Saeed were transferred to club, including Iraqi young goalscoring sensation 18 year-old Ahmed Radhi.

The financial situation of the players and clubs in the 70s and 80s was indeed even worse than the current situation. The clubs were owned and controlled by military divisions and government owned establishment. Army clubs included Air Force, Army, Salah-Al-Deen and Bahri (Navy) Club. Players representing these team were either on the draft and usually received a pay similar to any other draftees of less than 20 Iraqi dinars a month or being employed by the army as solders with a pay in the range of 50 – 100 dinars a month with the exception of Hassan Farhan since he was an officer with the rank of a captain when he retired. He was getting in the range of 200 dinars a month.

The civilian clubs included the Police Club own by the Internal Ministry, Al-Zawraa club own by the Rail Road Establishment, the Minaa Club own by the Port Authority, the Industry Club own by The Electricity Authority, Al-Baladiyat club own by the Establishment of Baghdad City, Trade Club own by the Trade Ministry etc.. Players playing for these clubs were either a government employees of the prospective establishment getting anywhere from 40-80 dinars a month or simply on an allowance basis of 6 dinars a month if they elect to not to be employed by the establishment that own the club. The Students Club was owned and operated by the Ministry of High Education, but the club players were not allowed to be employed by them. Instead their players used to get an wage of less than 20 dinars a months viewed to be a student loan.

The clubs also do not have a budget to work with. Most of the teams were using a locally built bus called “Reem” for transportation. The bus was similar to the school bus used in the American school system. An exception were the Air Force, Army and Salah-Al-Deen since these clubs used imported buses that originally for normal military use. The clubs also used to use locally manufactured equipment of very poor quality such like uniforms and training kits.

In 1975, the Air Force club visited Kuwait to play a friendly game with the Kuwaiti league winner “Al-Qadiseya Club”. The Kuwaiti side donated a three set of uniforms to the Air Force that club used for the next five seasons. The schedule of the league was poorly organised. First, it used to be one game a day and often a week or two weeks go by without scheduling a single game. Secondly, the games often scheduled two or three days prior to kick off. I remembered, there were a lot of games that were scheduled and played without the media knowing anything about them.

Th cup competition used to be a part time affair, as often it would not take place or be cancelled since the IFA was busy scheduling the league games. I also recalled that three times in the 70s and 80s, the league schedule was not completed and winner was prematurely announced. Despite the lack of financial support and poor management, the league still produced so many memorable matches especially the rivalries between Air Force, Police, Zawraa, Students and Minaa clubs. In 1978, a league game was played between Al-Zawraa and the Students clubs with so many first class players that were at the top of their games. Al-Zawraa line up included Jalal Abdul-Rahman, Adnan Dirjal, Mahdi Jassim, Hassani Alwan, Fatah Mohammed, Hazim Jassam (captain), Falah Hassan, Ali Khadim, and Thamir Yousif while the Student Club line up included Ibrahim Ali, Wathiq Aswad, Shaker Ali, Jamal Ali, Hussein Saeed, Mahdi Abdul-Sahib, Nazar Ashraf. I still remembered that game like so many other league games like an open book. Unfortunately, Fatah Mohammed from Al-Zawraa deliberately injured the midfielder and captain of the Students Club Jamal Ali, who at the time was perhaps heading to be the greatest midfielder Iraq ever produced. Talking about injury, this was another area were the IFA destroyed the career of so many Iraqi starts by failing to sent them abroad on timely manner to get treated. In the case of Jamal Ali, it took the IFA two years to authorise his treatment. When he finally return from injury, he was not the same player anymore.

The same goes for a very promising midfielder by the name of Wamidh Khudhor, he was the star of the Iraqi youth team that defeated Iran 4-3 to claim the Asian youth title in 1977, he later suffered a knee injury in his first team debut for the national team against Morocco. The injury ended his promising career ending since he never received any proper treatment.

The Air Force and national team legend Mejbil Fartous was forced into retirement at the age of 29 due to an injury after the IFA did not authorise treatment due to age, still up to this today, Mejbil still carries a disability due to that knee injury.

During the mid-70s a Iraqi legend by the name of Kadhim Waal was born. He was a top goalscorer with a deadly left foot, who could score from anywhere. He was the youngest player to captain the national team at the age of 23 but sadly after scoring 25 goals in 30 matches for the youth and senior national teams, he was injured by his team mate Latif Labib in a game during the military league. In those days, players on the team sheets of the Army Clubs were required to play for their prospective army unites. Such games often played as often as two games a day on a very poor condition clay turf. It took the IFA two years to approve him for treatment in Bulgaria. The simple treatment on the troubled knee was performed by an unqualified physician went terribly wrong that even a treatment visit to West Germany a year later couldn’t cure the damage. Waal promising career unfortunately came to an end.

Now we go back to the subject topic, what was missing in the 1990s that caused the decline of the Iraqi football. The answer is simple, the Iraq-Iran war since such war destroyed the base of the Iraqi football, Kooora Al-Shaabiya.

The success we enjoyed in the 80s was the product of the what was the public soccer school made during the 70s era. Before I can discuss such reason in detail, we need to first visit the Iraqi public soccer theme. Each town or section of a town used to have at least one soccer field that has goals and the proper dimension and some town or section have as many as three or four fields. Iraqi youngster start playing soccer at the age of four and five. At this age, children used to play soccer in the streets. Each kid who owned a ball usually established a team. The team normally compromises from kids of the street and every day we involved in a game and some time several games with teams from adjacent street and often played the same team all over again. Such matches are never ending games and only stop when one of the playing team quit or due to darkness. By the age of 8-10, youngsters start to get involved in team that consists of players of several adjacent streets and continually play with team from different sections of the town. In that age players also start to attend the games that played on almost daily bases on the town field. By the age of 10-13, they normally start getting recruited in a more organised teams that we wear uniform, attend practices and play games according to the roles. Such teams are own by players that involved in the town’s first team. At this stage, they compete with teams from the same town and play in town football field during the morning and afternoon since the evening time is always reserved to older teams. After the age of 13, they normally start joining the town teams. Depends on the size of the town and the number of available soccer fields, the number of teams per town can vary from a handful to tens of teams. These teams are often owned and managed by soccer addicted individuals such as former or current league players and individual that die and live by the game. Such teams usually have a headquarter which is often one of the town café (Qahwa). The team pictures and trophies often decorate one side of the café. In fact, even some of the cafés are named after the team. The players of the team gather on sometime daily bases during the night. They discuss team problems and strategies , recruiting new players and soliciting future games and tournaments.

At this level, the teams involved in matches and tournaments with other teams from the same town and adjacent towns and occasionally receive teams and make visits to teams throughout the country. Scheduling games is organised through personal contacts, visiting other team’s headquarter and receiving visitors from different team. It is any child’s dream to play for these teams especially the tradition and well recognised teams as early as possible since when you are at this stage, you are recognised by your hometown.

It is the practice for a large segment of the town to walk to the field in the evening and watch their boys either playing teams from the same town or teams from different town. In some towns, it is a daily gathering events that even attract street drink and food seller. Where I grow up in Al-Mashtal town our games used to draw a crowd reaching some times thousands of local fans especially when the matches were part of a well recognised tournament or against a rival team. Something I must admit, is that there isn’t any intimidating experience worse than playing in Al-Thawra City, where the field is jammed by sometime thousands of enthusiastic fans that don’t stop cheering even after their team is behind. In some town such as Al-Mashtal, Al-Thawra, Al-Beyaa, Hay Al-Hureya etc., even there is a local association that is responsible for managing and maintaining the local fields, conduct the scheduling of the local teams in a manner to give the local teams in equal time of utilising the town fields, organising a local and regional tournament, serve as a disciplinary committee for players and teams, and also select the players of the town team. The association members are served on voluntary bases and are elected by the players and coaches of the town teams. Some of the town teams can be even stronger than the league clubs.

In 1976, Al-Mashtal first team was able to beat Diyala Club 3-0, which was a first division club. Personally, I was able to make it to Al-Baladiyat Club before I was able to wear my town first team shirt. Before, I joined the Air Force U19 team and then Al-Baladiyat Club, I was playing in the Al-Mashtal reserve team. My town association still felt that my talent was not good enough to qualify me to the first team. The roles of the public soccer was brought the attention of the Ministry of Sport and Youth as the best way to enhance the game in Iraq. In the period between 1977 and 1980 despite neglecting the national team and the league clubs, the Ministry of Sport and Youth invested a great deal of financial and human resources in enhancing the public soccer by constructing thousands of new soccer fields, furbishing the local teams with imported equipment and uniforms while also providing a budget money for the local soccer associations. Although, such move was largely politically motivated, it enhanced the soccer game significantly.

Many of the national team and club coaches used to attend the public soccer activities to recruit players. For example, Sabah Abdul Jalil was called to national team by Scottish coach Danny McLennan before even playing a single game in the Iraqi league. More than 75% of the youth team used to be recruited straight from the public teams. In fact, clubs like Al-Baladiyat, the Industry, the Trade, the Youth, the Labour clubs used to survive by mainly recruiting from public teams since these clubs did not have the money to pay their players. Young players often accept playing for these clubs with just an allowance of little as 6 Iraqi dinars a months as a temporary step before they can be recognised by big clubs like Air Force, Zawraa and Police. It should be mentioned here that players often continue their playing involvement with their public teams even after joining the league clubs.

In the late 70s, the league players exhibited more interest in the practices and games of their public teams in contrast to their league clubs. This was a big reason behind the IFA moves to ban national players from participating in local teams. Several Iraqi first team and youth players received disciplinary actions for breaking such roles. When I was 14 years old and while playing for Al-Mashtal reserve team, I was involved in a regional tournament that drew more than 100 teams representing towns located in Al-Resafa side of Baghdad.

The tournament was called Al-Resafa Championship and was a knock out competition. My town was represented by two teams: Al-Mashtal first team and the reserve team. Our reserve team surprised every one in reaching the final. Our first team lost in the quarterfinal and since then it picked up the nickname (Rusted team) since the senior team lost while the youngsters beat them to the final. In this tournament, we faced so many teams with either league players on their squad or youngsters who later made it to the league. In the quarter final, we defeated a team from New Baghdad that had two youngsters that later made it all the way to the national team. Those players were Adnan Dirjal and Ara Hampersum. By the way our teams also had several youngsters that later made it to the national team and the league clubs including our goalkeeper Samir Khadim, who later played for Salah-Al-Deen and the Iraqi youth team in the early 80s and was also in the national team squad in the mid -80s and his brother Ali Khadim, a central defender with the Students Club the mid-80s Hussein Abbas (Industry Club) and Aqil Hashim (Students Club). In the final we faced a team from section 51 of Al-Thawra city which had four youngsters which I later recognised to be Karim Saddam (Who scored two goals in that game), Emad Jassim, who later become the left winger of both the Air Force Club and Iraq and scored the overtime goal against Japan that helped Iraq to their first and only Asian Games title, Hussein Ali Thijil, who later become the midfielder of the Iraqi youth team and the Airforce Club and later became my team-mate at the Air Force youth team, 2 years and Razzaq Mahmoud (Police Club).

The game was played in my home town and was attended by Iraqi coach Danny McLennan, his assistant Ammo Baba, Muayad Al-Badry, the journalist Qasim Mohammed, who wrote a short match report that was published in the sport page of Al-Jumhoreya Newspaper, another person I recognised was the Airforce club’s famous coach Abdelillah Mohammed Hassan.

In that game I played extremely well scoring the second goal and creating the equaliser with a minute left in the game. The game finished in 3-3 draw in normal time. Due to limited daylight required, extra-time was skipped and instead the game was to be settled on penalty kicks. I was picked to execute the fifth penalty and frankly I though it would not be needed since we had the tournament’s best goalkeeper. I was wrong, when it came to my turn, our team was trailing 4-3 and I took no time to sail my shot some 10 feet over the cross bar. As a 14-year-old kid, I buried my face on the clay turf and started crying. A few minutes later, I was pulled from the ground by the hand of Danny McLennan and I heard him saying through the translation of Muayad Al-Badri “Don’t get hard on yourself, you should be proud of yourself, without your contribution your team would’ve lost in the regular time”. Out of the three that came to cheer me up (McLennan, Ammo Baba and Al-Badri), I found it, I was amazed to talk and shake the hand of Al-Badry. After a brief exchange of words with Al-Badri, Ammo Baba pulled me a side and whispered a few words in my ears. I recalled he was advising me that not to get fancy with penalty kicks, a simple hard hit ball to the corner was all what needed. To be frank, I never took that advice seriously as I never volunteered to take another penalty kick since that day. Mr. Al-Badri handed the trophies of the first and second places to us. I was still crying when I was about to receive my trophy. Mr. Al-Badri said before he handed me the trophy that if I do not smile, he is not going to hand me my trophy. I put a little smile just to see Ammo Baba picking up one of the first place trophy and saying “take this one too”. Everyone laughed. Later in life, I learned that there are so many things in life that worth crying for, losing a soccer game was fortunately is not one of them.

When the war between Iraq-Iran is erupted in 1980, the first victim was the Iraqi public soccer for the two following reasons, firstly, most of the public soccer fields were converted by the regime to training grounds and head quarters for ever rapidly growing the Public Militia (Jaish Al-Shaaby). Secondly, since most of the Iraqis in the age range of 18 to 45 were actively serving the time life lasting draft, no one was left available to organise and promote public soccer. No one was available to coach and guide the youngsters. Al-Thawra City, a crowded town of over a million inhabit located on the superb of Baghdad that consists of over 50 sections ‘Qataa’. Since the day the city was built in early 60s, each section contains anywhere from two to four soccer fields located in the centre of each section. Those fields were used to be booked seven days a week from sunrise to sunset and sometimes beyond. In the 60s and 70s, the soccer became the social life of this crowded town. About 75% of the league players in the 70s and 80s were the graduate of Al-Thawra public soccer schools.

In the 80s, almost every single field was converted to training grounds for the public militia. Instead of practising soccer, the youngsters were picked, provided with a short six weeks military training and then sent to die in mass numbers. The people of this town were used as a cheap fuel to keep the Iraq-Iran war running for eight years. The same soccer fields that used in the 60s and 70s to produce the majority of the Iraqi soccer stars and legends, they are used in the 80s to graduate hundred thousands of poorly trained solders that most of them they never made back home. No wonder why Saddam changed the name of the city from Al-Thawra to Saddam town. The public soccer in the city completely died and with it, Iraqi soccer started it is decline. The problem started from 1980 and forward but its effect on the club and national levels did not recognise until early 90s. It takes about 10-14 years from the minute you create a youngster till the day his star shins at the league level.

The success Iraqi soccer had in the 80s was the fruit of what Kooora Shaabiya (the public soccer) created in 70s. Nowadays, players joining the league or the 2nd division are not qualified to play in the majority of the public teams of the 70s and 80s. In conclusion, the public soccer school was the high school of the Iraqi soccer. You would never expect a person to do well in college once he is poorly graduated from high school. In Iraqi soccer, the same principle also applied, you would never except a person do well on the club league level if those players are poorly prepare at the public soccer level.


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