Football in Iraq has always been strong compared to other teams in the region of the Middle East or the Arab World; Iraq qualified for the 1986 World Cup and played in three Olympic Games in the same decade.
In the 1980s, Iraq were the best team in Asia, however because of the war with Iran, the Baathist regime wanted to portray itself, as a strong Arab nation at war, a nation that could help defend the Arabs (who were funding the war) against an Iranian invasion, and also, at the same time win on the football field.
This was why the main priority was always the Arab competitions, such as the Arab Cup, Pan Arab Games and the Gulf Cup ahead of the Asian Cup, and also why the Iraqi FA were never eager to enter any of the Asian Cups during the 8-year war with Iran, because it was never seen to be the regime’s target audience.
To give you a clear picture of how strong the Iraqi team were in the 1980s, in the same years when Saudi Arabia lifted the Asian Cup in 1984 and 1988, Iraq played the Saudis and beat them 4-0 and 2-0 respectively, the second game was played Riyadh and the 50,000 home fans at the King Fahd International Stadium applauded the Iraqi team in the last minutes of the game as they won the Gulf Cup.
Under Saddam, football was like anything else, a tool for the regime to use and manipulate. Saddam’s eldest son was not a big football fan but used sports as a way to gain a larger public profile for himself after he had graduated. It has been said that Uday only got into sports after a meeting in the early 80s. It was the idea of one of Saddam’s bodyguards, Sabah Mirza. He put forward an idea of using and controlling sports, and capturing the imagination of the country and the youth in particular to keep morale high among the masses in the long and hard fought war with Iran. The idea was to put the ruling party’s inner circle in control of sports and obtained approval from the president, provided that Uday would be given a role in the venture, and that it was directly supervised by Hussein Kamil himself. Sabah Mirza became president of the Iraq FA, while Hussein Kamil and Uday founded a new club, they called Al-Rasheed. Uday would be the only person left standing after Sabah Mirza and Hussein Kamel (defected in 1995 and was killed on his return to Iraq) lost favour with Saddam.
In the early days of Uday’s rule, the team was very successful, winning Arab and Gulf tournaments and the players were handed gifts of cars and houses, the first scenes of Uday’s methods came in 1986 when his team Al-Rasheed lost 1-0 to rivals and the players heads were shaved which was noticed by their Brazilian coach Edu, brother of Zico however by the 1990s when Iraq was under sanctions, things became worse and Uday’s threats and torture became even more severe. One of the worst stories was that of the Iraqi youth team in 1998. Iraq had lost their first two matches at the Asian Youth Championship in Thailand, and in the third match against South Korea, it was 0-0 at half-time, however Iraq needed to win to stand any chance of reaching the semi-finals. Uday called and said ‘If you don’t win the second half, it’s one month in jail for the whole team”, the youth team went into the second half trembling with fear, and lost 3-0. On the team’s return to Baghdad, the whole delegation were jailed and forced to do hard labour on one of Uday’s farms, living and sleeping with the animals. They were only released after several players contracted cholera and Uday (fearing for his imported cows) ordered his men to release the players and the team officials.