BAGHDAD — Few athletes in modern history have played under the pressure faced by Iraq's national soccer team under Saddam Hussein. Brazil's footballers are showered with scorn if they fail to deliver a World Cup, and the Yankees brave the withering wrath of The Boss when they lose the World Series.
But nothing equaled having to answer to Iraq's former National Olympic Committee president, Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam who kept a jail and torture center at the national sport headquarters and often beat and humiliated athletes who performed poorly.
"It's no longer a secret: We played every match with the fear of punishment, an intense psychological pressure,'' says Mowafak Nuri, a defender for the national side and top Iraqi club Al Zawra, who retired last year. "The Olympic Committee chairman destroyed the performances of the national team."
After qualifying for the 1986 World Cup, the team went into a tailspin, defeated early in most Asian and Arab regional tournaments. A group that was once the pride of the Arab nations plummeted to 140th in the world in the mid-1990s. Iraq's fans despaired of ever returning to the pinnacle.
But Iraqi soccer has already begun a remarkable turnaround. Last month the national team qualified for next year's Asian Cup in China, as did the Under-20 and Under-17 youth teams. Bernd Stange, the coach of the National Team, thinks his side has a chance at World Cup qualification for 2006.
Last weekend, the country's Olympic team - for players under 23 - moved on to the next round of qualifying with a 4-1 defeat of North Korea. In a measure of Iraqi soccer mania, that relatively minor victory set off burst after burst of celebratory gunfire around Baghdad on Saturday night.
"One victory might be a coincidence, but the national team, the youth teams, all having success at once makes it clear,'' says Salam Hashim, coach of Al Zawra, seven of whose players are on the national team. "The fall of the regime has lifted a weight from the players' minds."
Soccer players weren't the only victims of Uday, who was killed along with his brother, Qusay, by American forces in August. National track and field athletes and boxers were also tortured by him for "humiliating" the nation with poor performances. But as soccer was Uday's favorite game, they bore the brunt of his horrifying attention.
Though sport might not seem important against the backdrop of Iraq's current problems, the perverse mishandling of sport - meant to be the most meritocratic of human endeavors - by the Hussein regime is an important symbol of the range of benefits his removal could bring to Iraqis. And watching a recent practice at Al Zawra, with players dribbling through gates and playing controlled games, was a welcome sign that normal activity is slowly being reborn.
Mr. Nuri recalls being jailed for one night at Olympic headquarters after a bad performance against a club from the United Arab Emirates and though his punishment stopped there, "I was terrified the whole time about what was coming next." Some players had their heads shaved as an added humiliation.
But for the least fortunate, what came next was the bastinado, a form of torture widespread in Iraq during the Ottoman Empire. Uday revived the practice, which involved beating the soles of a victim's feet, for a select number of national team players. The pain is said to be excruciating.
One famous victim of this method was former national team player Sharar Haydar. "But not just him, this happened to many, many people,'' says Mr. Hashim.
Hashim, who, in his mid-30s, still has the taut physique of a professional athlete, was one of the fortunate ones. As a powerful central defender who starred for both Al Zawra and the national side, he was one of Uday Hussein's favorites, and avoided the extreme attacks Uday visited upon other players in the 1990s. But even he was subject to Uday's whims.
Until Uday was badly injured by an assassination attempt in 1996, he delighted in playing with informal games with top players at his palace. Hashim remembers being hauled out of bed at 4 a.m. for games on more than one occasion with Uday and a drunken gang of his friends. "Nobody ever said anything, but we didn't dare take the ball away from him while he was dribbling,'' says Hashim, laughing now. "I don't remember that Uday ever lost."
Turning serious, Hashim says that his relatively positive treatment by Uday didn't compensate for the fact that his entire national team career was played in fear. He recalls faking an illness to avoid playing a match at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
"A sportsman should play with joy, and when you make a mistake, you should put all of your energy into making up for it. But when we made mistakes, we were consumed with what might be waiting for us at home."
To be sure, all the news isn't good news for Iraqi soccer.
The domestic league season has been suspended because of security concerns - Al Zawra played one league game at home over a month ago, but the game was abandoned after one fan was shot and killed.
Nevertheless, Hashim believes Iraq's soccer renaissance has only just begun. "We love soccer like the Brazilians, it's probably the only thing those two nations have in common,'' he says. "With luck, in three or four years we'll be primed for World Cup qualification again."