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Zoran Smileski: ‘My Iraqi youth team’

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BAGHDAD, IRAQ: Uday (L), the eldest son of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, greets an Iraqi player after the end of a soccer game between Iraq's national junior team and Nepal in Baghdad 07 June
BAGHDAD, IRAQ: Uday (L), the eldest son of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, greets an Iraqi player after the end of a soccer game between Iraq's national junior team and Nepal in Baghdad 07 June

Former Iraqi FA and INOC president Uday Saddam Hussein was renowned in Iraq for his own brand of ‘morale-winning’ team talks with his systematic imprisonment and torture of sportsmen for nearly 20 years. Since the fall of his father’s Baathist regime, the world for the first time heard the horrors of playing under Saddam’s erratic elder son Uday – for Iraq’s youth team and their coach what happened in 1998 is clear as day in their memories.

The prison warders beat us, accusing us of being traitors. They kept us there for a month before taking us back to our clubs to start training again,” says one member of the team.

ZORAN THE GREAT

In 1998, while preparing for the Asian Youth Championship qualifiers, the entire team were imprisoned after defeat by Jordan, when the team bus returned from Amman it drove them straight to prison along with coach Najih Hemoud on the orders of Saddam’s eldest son. On his release, the coach was sacked. After humiliating defeats to Kazakhstan in the World Cup qualifiers the previous year, Iraq hoped to give an impressive performance in the Asian Youth Championship and Uday decided for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War to employ a foreign coach to help the team.

His name was Zoran Smileski, who had been coaching champions Sileks Kratovo in his native Macedonia, while also managing the country’s Under-21 side on a part-time basis. In 1988, he helped FK Borac reach the Yugoslav Cup final, losing to a star-studded Red Star Belgrade and four years later lifted the club’s first European trophy the Mitropa Cup with a 5-3 shoot-out win over VSC Budapesti of Hungary. Civil war in Yugoslavia brought him to FK Skendija in Tetovo, there he spent three seasons culminating in promotion to the 1st division in 1995. Zoran also had a successful playing career having turned out for Partizan Beograd, FK Borac and spent three years in Austria with Innsbruck before hanging up his boots in 1982.

The Iraqi FA had been under investigation from the world governing body FIFA after allegations of torture and imprisonment in 1997, but the man, the Iraqis got to know fondly as just ‘Zoran’, like many of Iraq’s previous foreign coaches under Uday’s rule, which included 4 Brazilians, 2 Yugoslavs, 2 Russians, a Ukrainian, a South African, a Croatian, a German and an Englishman, knew and saw nothing.

“I didn’t know anything about FIFA’s investigation. I am a professional coach and I just accepted the offer which I got from the Iraqi Football Association,” Zoran candidly explained.

Zoran was appointed in May 1998 and hastily got to work, guiding Iraq to the finals of the Asian Youth Championship in Thailand. The qualifiers were played in Baghdad with the hosts placed in a group that included North Korea, Nepal, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Qualification went down to the wire, a win in Iraq’s last game would see them qualify ahead of their nearest rivals North Korea. Their opponents were bottom-placed Nepal, who had already conceded 15 goals in 3 matches. Before the game, Zoran gave his team talk hoping to instil confidence into his men.

“I told them that we are better and that we will win for sure with a high score to qualify for the Asian Youth Championship in Thailand.”

After 90 minutes, that would see an exhausted Nepalese goalkeeper pick the ball out of his net seven times, Iraq were through. Zoran, his coaching staff and players were ecstatic.

After the win, he met with Iraqi FA and Olympic committee president Uday Saddam Hussein, who had attended Iraq’s matches at the Al-Shaab Stadium and personally congratulated the coach and the players.

"We were asked to go to the VIP box right after the game. Mr. Uday wanted to thank me and my assistant Najih Humoud. I met Uday twice, both times at the Al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad during the Under-19 qualifications."

“I had been in constant contact while in Iraq with Mr.Aseel Tabra, the vice president of the INOC.”

Tabra had been the man that carried out many of Uday’s sadistic orders. A few weeks before the outbreak of war, he and several other senior officials were sent to the notorious Al-Radwaniya prison after revelations of large-scale embezzlement and fraud in the Olympic committee.

When the Iraqi national job was up for grabs, Zoran’s name was mentioned.

“It could have happened because I was already informed about it while talking with Mr. Aseel Tabra.”

The coach had signed a two year contract with the IFA and there were talks about Zoran taking over as national coach, but nothing materialised.

“They ceased on their own wishes,” he explained.

The Macedonian whose first achievement whilst in charge of the Iraqi youth team prior to qualifying for the Asian Youth Championship was lifting the Rajiv Gandhi Cup in India – began preparing his team for the big Asian tournament in Thailand.

“We had many warm-up matches before the finals in Thailand, with Sudan, we played twice in tournaments in Jordan, in Turkey, all of those were friendly matches. In Turkey we played two matches in the city of Mersina with second division teams. We beat one team and lost to another. We stayed 7 days there. In Jordan, we won three games with their top teams all from the first division.“

However the coach and his players had their sights on something much bigger.

“We wanted to go onto the Under-20 World Cup in Nigeria in 1999.”

Iraq had previously played in the World Youth Cup in 1977 in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in 1989 with encouraging results. In 1977, Hussein Saeed was second top scorer in the tournament after hitting a hat-trick in a 5-1 win over Austria. Twelve years later, Laith Hussein almost joined Barcelona after grabbing their attention with the winner against Spain, but Uday would not let him leave Iraq. During the competition, Iraq beat Argentina and Norway before losing in the quarterfinals – to the United States.

A FIFA inquiry into the 1989 team would subsequently lead to a two-year ban from all youth tournaments and the Olympics. The investigation came after Iraq had produced two different dates of births for an Iraqi player, who took part in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the 1989 World Youth Championship in Saudi Arabia. One member of the team Sharar Haidar, now president of the Free Iraqi Olympic Group, an organisation made up of exiled Iraqi sportsmen admitted in the British newspaper, the Sunday Times in 1999 that he and a number of his team-mates played for the youth team only due to phony passports given to them by Uday.

GROUP OF DEATH

The youngsters arrived in Thailand hoping to emulate past teams in the competition – Iraq had won the Asian Youth Championship four times previously in 1975, 1977, 1978 and 1988, the most famous being in 1977, when a last minute back-header from Hussein Saeed gave Iraq a dramatic 4-3 win over Iran in Tehran, a match which was still being re-run on Iraqi TV before the US-led invasion in March 2003.

“It was a nice quality tournament” the coach recalled.

“But unfortunately we were in a very strong group with South Korea, Japan, Qatar, China.”

As Zoran’s young side lined-up for the national anthems against Qatar their minds were all on a victory but nothing went to plan.

“We should have won,” Zoran remembers with regret.

In the first half, Iraq had numerous chances to take the lead, however six minutes into the second half, Qatar went ahead. After over an hours play, a defensive lapse by Qatar allowed Iraq’s Riyadh Mizher to equailise but any hopes of an Iraqi win were dashed when Qatar scored again with under ten minutes left of the game.

Reflecting back, the coach says “This game was the one which I regret the most. It finished 2-1 to Qatar but we were supposed to win.”

Having lost the first match, Iraq came into their game with Japan needing a win to keep any hopes of qualifying for the semi-finals. Captain Shinji Ono marshaled the Japanese stars with the firepower coming from Naohiro Takahara up-front. The first half ended 2-1 to Japan but the most decisive moment of the game came seconds into the 2nd half when a flash of madness by Iraqi keeper Ali Abdul-Zahra resulted in him being shown the red card for deliberately handling the ball outside the box.

With 10 men, Iraq pushed for a second and it duly came through captain Abbas Rahim, adding to his penalty in the first half. Japan came back and scored a third that finally broke the Iraqi spirit. Ono hit a fourth before sub Seiji Koga and an own goal wrapped up a 6-2 win for Japan.

The coach made several changes for the third game against South Korea but the Iraqis were brushed aside by a talented Korean side which Zoran openly acknowledged was the best team that his team came up against in the tournament.

"I must add that South Korea not only won our group and the Asian Youth Cup but also played in the finals of the 1999 Under-20 World Cup in Nigeria."

The defeat put Iraq out of the competition with one match left.

The young Iraq side in last place and without a point went into the game with only pride to play for. Their opponents China took an early lead in the 4th minute which only seemed to incite the Iraqis into action. The teams were brought level by Abdul-Ameer Hassan’s goal after he had picked up a pass from midfield, raced into the box and slipped the ball passed the Chinese goalkeeper. Around 10 minutes later with the Chinese failing to contain the Iraqis, Abdul-Ameer turned provider as his cross from the left was put in by their captain, the late Abbas Rahim, with minutes left of the 1st half, Ammar Abdul-Hussein headed in the third. China scored a second in the 2nd half but the youngsters held on to go home with something to cheer about, so they thought.

POINT OF NO RETURN

When the team returned to Baghdad, a bus was waiting at the airport to take the players, technical manager, two team doctors and one journalist who covered the game to the Iraqi Olympic Committee building.

“Uday’s aid came on the bus and told us we would never see our families again. Everyone was shaking and crying,” said team member Mazin Jaber.

However unlike many Iraqi national teams who were imprisoned and tortured after failing to achieve their objectives in international tournaments, for example the teams of 1993 and 1997, that failed not make it the World Cup finals in the United States and France but for the returning youngsters Uday had something else in mind.

Uday, whose favourite pastimes were spent on what he loved best – thinking up different forms of torture, had the idea of sending the team to work on a farm outside the Iraqi capital that was said to have been owned by himself. There all of the players worked from 6am to 6pm, cleaning and feeding the animals on the farm. The players all slept in a large cow stall with the farm animals and after 25 days, nearly the entire team became ill and were later released.

Their coach like many foreigners in Iraq was kept away from what was really happening to its people and only found out that the team were sent to the farm after the regime fell.

“I have heard, but I didn’t see anything when I was in Iraq. I felt terribly bad and sorry for them, the players as well as Najih Humoud and my other good friends and colleagues.”

Zoran remained in Iraq as his daughter had not completed her first term at the international high school in Baghdad but after UN spectators were withdrawn by the US in December 1998 with the breakdown of talks with Iraqi officials over access to inspection sites, all foreigners including Zoran’s family were advised to leave Iraq immediately, with an imminent attack by the US and the UK later code named ‘Operation Desert Fox’ expected.

It was the last time, he would see his players and friends in Iraq.

“We felt terrible while the bombardments were going on. They just said that all foreigners must leave Iraq because of the bombing of Baghdad.”

Back home in Macedonia, Zoran eagerly waited beside the phone for a call from Iraq, but it never came.

“I wanted to continue to work there but they never called me to.“

After 15 years would the coach still remember his players’ faces?

"Yes, of course I remember all my players. Abbas Rahim, Riyadh Mizher, Haidar Obiad, Hassan Hamed. After the end of Saddam and Uday, I am very happy for all of them, I am also happy for Najih Humoud, he was a good friend of mine."

With the current situation in Iraq, would the Macedonian still consider coaching in the war-torn country?

“I am ready to go whenever I am asked. I had a great experience while working in Iraq and I would accept to go as soon as possible. Just tell me when.”