Ammo Baba: The Man Who Stood Against Uday Hussein
How does a person become a legend in the world of football? What are the parameters that define a legend? Is it the player’s absolute loyalty towards a team through thick and thin, or the sheer class that he displays on the field, day in and day out? Well, there’s surely more to it. Meet Emmanuel Baba Dawud, a different kind of legend. A kind you have probably never heard of. He was not the best footballer born in the last century in Iraq, but he went beyond the known limits of football, and emerged as a legend nonetheless.
On 29th July 2007, Iraq made headlines for a very unlikely reason. A strong tide of emotion swept the nation. Children painted their face red and black, and were seen dancing on streets and singing songs of pride. They were celebrating Iraq’s first Asian Cup victory in history. Jassim Ghulam Al-Hamd, Nashat Akram, and Hawar Mulla Mohammed—three key figures behind Iraq’s triumph— didn’t forget to convey their gratitude to their former coach, the legendary man who had the vision to make Iraq a footballing nation. To achieve this, he had to encounter extraordinary hardships. That man is Emmanuel Baba Dawud who picked up a leather ball in a war torn country and stood against Uday Hussein, one of the most notorious dictators the world has ever seen.
Rise of Iraq’s First Prince of Football—“Ammo Baba”
This story starts in 1951. That was the year when the 16-years old Baba exploded into the Middle Eastern football scene after being named the player of the tournament in the Pan Arab School Championship held in Cairo. The Iraqi School’s coach Ismail Mohamed didn’t take long in spotting the future of Iraqi football. After this, Baba didn’t have to look back. Born in 1934 in Baghdad, Baba’s family, along with other Assyrians, shifted to the refugee camp in Habbaniya in the west of Baghdad.This was set up by Royal Air Force for the victims and survivors of the Simele massacre in 1937. Baba’s induction to the beautiful game happened in a rather unusual fashion. Unlike other kids, who have the privilege to watch football around the world on television, Baba came to know about the game by watching British soldiers playing on the dusty fields of the large RAF base. Football wasn’t that popular in Iraq back then, but went on to become the national sport a decade later. And Baba’s unparalleled love to the beautiful game was destined to make a legendary story.
Baba had been a national hero ever since he made his senior debut in Iraq’s first military match in a CISM World Military Championship qualifier in 1955. Having played a great game, Baba was greeted by the Egyptian players for his effort and fans cheered their new star. Two years later, in 1957, he announced himself to the world in Iraq’s first official international match—scoring the team’s first goal against Morocco. Baba was an instinctive and complete goal-scorer, known for his bicycle kicks, heading ability, defense splitting pace, and powerful shooting. He had an opportunist’s eye for goal, but also displayed the world-class skill of a brilliant center forward, famous for his “backward double-kick”. Aptly, he earned the affectionate nickname “Ammo Baba” (Uncle/ Father in Arabic) from his coach.
“He was the one that discovered me and polished and refined my talent, skill and also gave me that mental edge”
Iraq became a strong football force in the Middle East in the 1950s. A number of gifted players, such as Aram Karam, Hormis Goriel and Youra Eshaya were part of this golden generation. Baba was also a part of this. Having impressed his homeland, he was drawing attention from the big names of Europe. In 1958, Baba got seriously injured while playing for Al-Jawiya in the Iraqi League.He was sent to London for treatment on the orders of King Faisal II. There,he was contacted by several clubs, including Liverpool, Chelsea, Fulham, and Celtic. Apart from these big clubs, English Second Division side Notts County (which was then managed by former Iraqi military coach Frank Hill) also tried to convince Baba and offered him a contract. A year earlier, another former coach of his, William Cook,had offered him a chance to play for English Third Division club Crewe Alexandra. At first Baba thought of leaving his country, as competing on the bigger stage would make his country even prouder. This was a time when Iraq was in its era of never-ending revolutions. The regime was overthrown as a result of the revolution led by General Abdul Karim Qasim and the streets of Baghdad were dominated by anarchy. Baba was worried for his family’s security, so he decided to step back. Had he decided otherwise, his fate might have changed. He might have become a better footballer.But what he chose made him a legend instead.
Baba’s fairly illustrious playing career ended in 1970, after scoring 11 goals in 17 appearances for the national team (and arguably countless goals for different clubs). Talking about the best matches and goals he remembered in his career, Ammo said:
“Why play a match that is not beautiful and all of what that entertains the fans…
Rarely did I play a match without scoring a goal .. Believe me .. If I was to count
the goals that I had scored, it would exceed the number Pelé scored.. But we are
sorry that we did not record our goals or consolidate them!!”
Baba was a fan favorite. His huge popularity among the common people did not go unnoticed. While playing for Al-Jawiya in 1964, he was promoted to the rank of Major General. Politics was slowly muscling its way into sports in Iraq.Iraq’s socialist Ba’ath Party followed the path adopted by Italy, Germany, etc.—they started using football as a weapon of political propaganda. They wanted to use Baba as their face. When the footballer refused to join the propagandists, he was stripped of his rank and forced to leave the Air Force club to join Al-Maslaha—the public transport side. As the Ba’ath Party was rising to power, it was destabilizing the reign of King Faisal II, introducing politics into sports. This was the start of Baba’s real struggle. This was the beginning of his single-handed fight against Uday Hussein the son of the Secretary of the National Command of Iraq’s socialist Ba’ath Party —a monster who earned himself a name for murder, torture, and rape and was determined to send Iraqi football to its end.
Earning the King’s Crown: “Ammo Baba”, The Coach
Baba’s talent and vision as a coach surpassed his abilities as a player. His ability to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent earned him instant success. He was confident about his own capabilities as well. While serving as the head coach of Iraqi military team in the early 70s, he was suddenly fired without clarification. Disgusted by the management’s decision, he challenged the newly appointed coach. He claimed that he would create a team from people who had never kicked a football in their lives—a team that would beat his former team in three months. The new coach had no other option but accept the challenge. When the dramatic game was staged, trailing 1-0 at half-time, Baba’s side clinched victory in style, winning 3-1 in the end. The only black dot in his otherwise glittering management career came in the 1993-94 Asian Cup Winners Cup, when Baba’s Iraq National League champion side Al-Zawra ignominiously lost to the Indian club East Bengal by a margin of 6-2.
Baba served as the coach of Iraq’snational football team for 18 years, and in this period he was hired and fired 19 times. During his time, he won three Gulf Cup titles, one Asian Games title, one Arab Cup, and two World Military Championships. He led Iraq to the Moscow, Los Angeles, and Seoul Olympics. This list of trophies and achievements could have earned Baba the title of the greatest coach of the century if people would analyse the circumstances behind his triumphs.
Rise of Uday Hussein and the Revolutionary Road to Immortality
In 1958, Iraq was declared a republic as the Ba’ath party came into power. Shortly after, the sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis worsened the situation on and off the street. The internal war between the state and the party had once again pushed Iraq into a state of anarchy. The nation was split along social, ethnic, religious, and economic fault lines.
The separation between sports and the state ended when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979. In 1980, the Iran–Iraq war broke out, which lasted 8 years. Children aged between 13 and 18 were sent to the battlefield. According to government records, about 800,000 people died during this time. These were Baba’s people. The people he fought for. Iraq bled on the outside while Baba was bleeding on the inside. During this period, in 1984, Saddam turned over control of Iraqi football to his vicious son, Uday. Politics entered sports as never before.
The butcher’s boy, as Uday was sometimes called, was reputedly the most brutal member of Iraq’s notorious ruling family. As an infant, he used to play with disarmed grenades. By the time he was 10, he started accompanying his father to Qasr-al-Nihayyah—the torture chamber (where many political enemies, including King Faisal II, were killed)—to watch how Saddam dealt with dissidents. As a 16-year-old, he was accused of committing his first murder—killing his teacher who had scolded him in front of his girlfriend.
Saddam handed the responsibilities of the country’s Olympic committee and its football federation to his son. He hoped that Uday would rebuild the spirit of the nation’s youth. Saddam did this despite knowing that Uday was a sadist with a taste for extreme cruelty—a fact that had forced him to acknowledge that his first-born son would not be his worthy heir. At the age of 20, when he was appointed head of the IFA, Iraq had one of the most successful national teams in Asia and some of the continent’s strongest clubs in Al-Zawraa and Al-Jawiya. Iraq’s star players like Hussain Saeed and Ahmed Radhi were two of the most skillful and feared strikers in their prime.
From the very beginning, Uday made it clear that everything had to be done his way. His demands ranged from using only players he selected to tactical strategies, and even cruel and torturous methods for dealing with losses. The tortures took place mainly at the notorious Al Radwaniya prison. Punishments inflicted on players ranged from shaving off one’s head and eyebrows to caning. The incident with Habeeb Jaafar,when he was asked to ride a bike drawn on the wall explains the mental torment players and other officials endured due to the sadistic nature of Saddam’s infamous son. “Uday did not know the meaning of the word mercy…[He] did things that even Hitler could not imagine doing. He beat us with cables. He made players play with a concrete ball. He used to watch and laugh when they kicked it.” – Baba recalled. According to a former footballer, Uday never really understood or showed much interest in the game itself, but was desperate enough for a win that he would phone up the dressing room during half-time and threaten to cut off players’ legs and throw them to ravenous dogs if they lost. As football overseer, Uday kept a private torture scorecard, with written instructions on how many times each player should be beaten on the soles of his feet after a particularly poor showing. “There is just too much to talk about, my brother. You brought me back to my painful past. I was once imprisoned for 33 days in Al Radwaniya, and I was bewildered,” former Iraqi star Abbas Allaiwi said, as he recalled his imprisonment. “It was after a game against Al Talaba, where I was captaining my side Al Jaish. It was the opening game of the season—the mother of all battles—and I was a bit tense. There was a moment where the ref should’ve given a foul for my team, but somehow, he decided to play on and Al Talaba converted. That’s when I went up and confronted him. I told him to basically follow the rule of the game, etc., but that agitated the ref, who had me sent off. I got so livid that I spat in his face. Unfortunately for me, Uday was in attendance and I was told that I was banned from playing for a whole year. But that wasn’t enough for him. He told me that I wasn’t being respectful and that I should be disciplined. So I was arrested. And there, I was beaten with an electric cable 50 to 70 times every morning by his personal executioners.“
Baba did not accept the demands placed on him by Uday. Unlike other Iraqi citizens, Baba did not back down. Iraqis held a deep admiration for Baba because he staunchly defied Uday’s demands. Baba was one of the few people in all of Iraq who could openly confront Uday. When Baba refused to watch football and discuss strategy with Uday, the latter exploded and threatened to hang the manager and cut out his tongue. Baba spoke out against Uday repeatedly, yet somehow managed to survive. For many, there is hardly any doubt that, if Baba didn’t have Saddam’s backing, Uday would have killed him. The Iraqi people greatly respected Baba’s resolve, and even Saddam respected his honesty, calling him “the most honest man in the country”.
Once Uday took over, Iraqi football changed forever. Apart from the brutal oppression that Iraqi footballers had to endure, Uday did not allow them to leave the country and play for more prestigious teams. Some of Iraq’s best players were getting offers from European clubs, but, as former national coach Jorge Viera confirmed, “Uday would not authorize the transfers.” In 1988, Uruguayan club Nacional offered Al-Rasheed $1 million to sign striker Ahmed Radhi. Radhi had scored Iraq’s only World Cup finals goal against Belgium in 1986. However, Uday was quick to turn down the move. When he ultimately acquiesced in 1993, Iraqi players were finally allowed to turn professional and move abroad. Some players mistook Uday’s sudden change of heart as an unseen generous side of his character, but they soon realized that it was just another way for Uday to make money for himself. Players abroad had to turn over more than 60 per cent of their salaries to the Uday to keep their families alive back in Iraq. One of the worst tribulation that Baba had to face was in Seoul in South Korea in 1988, when Iraq lost 3-0 to Italy in the Olympics. The team was terrified as their aircraft was suddenly stopped more than a mile short of the airport terminal in Baghdad. “They did this to make us walk to the airport. But the whole team just ran away as fast as they could,” Baba said. “My son and I walked back to the terminal and when we got there we were greeted by the secret police who put guns to my head and stomach and dragged me away.” Like a final nail in the coffin, in 1989, FIFA discovered that Iraq had sent over-aged players to an under-19 tournament on Uday’s order. As a result, Iraq was suspended from international play for two years. Uday knew that he needed Baba’s strategy in order to earn medals for his team, but that never stopped him from poisoning the man’s life, turning his passion into a nightmare. After Iraq had been knocked out of the Olympics in 1984, Uday used his local media channels to put the blame on Baba. Within a week’s time, Baba’s character assassination was the subject of headlines in every newspaper and television channel in Iraq. This smear campaign questioned his loyalty to Iraq due to his past relationship with the British in his early career at the RAF base. Baba was even accused of having relationships with multiple women apart from his wife. This affected his marriage and sent his family to exile. Though heartbroken, Baba decided to stay back and counter all the false allegations. The volatile situation was crippling the development of Iraqi football. All clubs, including the national team, suffered badly from sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Al-Zawraa were almost bankrupt—their youth teams were barely able to afford boots.
Just at the time when Baba’s dream was falling apart, his response came loud and clear. In 1992, at the title decider between Baba’s Al-Zawraa and opponent Al-Jawiya, the referee ruled out a legitimate equalizer for Al–Zawraa, which cost them the title. Baba dealt the greatest insult he could to Uday—in front of 50,000 fans he refused to walk up to the podium and receive his medal from him. His action dissipated the fear of the crowds and the stadium erupted, chanting his name. By then Uday knew that the people of Iraq despised him and had chosen their leader. Baba was living inside every Iraqi common man. As a result, football started blossoming all over the nation again. While football in Najaf was slowly making its mark in the country, in Basra, one of the places where football was first played in Iraq, it had deteriorated. Football there suffered as a direct consequence of the uprisings against Saddam’s regime after the Gulf War. In 1992, three people were killed and 25 suffered serious injuries after Iraqi forces opened fire on supporters of the city’s traditional club, Al-Minaa, as they chanted against Saddam, Uday and the regime.
Baba’s audacity made Uday uncontrollably vindictive. Looking for vengeance,he sent Baba to prison on several occasions. The last such sentencing came in 1999 after Baba accused Uday of fixing a league game. He was locked up for three days in a one-meter by two-meter cell. Moreover, Uday refused to deliver any food or water to Baba. Deprived of food and the daily medicines he used to take for his heart condition and diabetes, Baba, who was 65 at the time, nearly died. However, somehow, he came out alive.
After America’s invasion of Iraq and Uday Hussein’s assassination in 2003, the situation didn’t seem to change. Restless conditions in northern and central Iraq was impeding the national under-21 football team’s preparation for the Asian Games. Football was banned by certain groups in the northern and western regions. Even Baba didn’t escape the fate. In January 2006, he was attacked at his home by thugs. He was tied, blindfolded, beaten and robbed.
On 27 May 2009, Baba breathed his last and bid farewell to the world. His last wish was to have his body buried in the ground of Malaab Al-Shaab, the Iraqi national stadium that was on occasions personally watered and tended to by Baba. Thus, future generations will play under the watchful eyes of Ammo Baba, the brave king of the common people.
To give back to your mother
on the occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?
~ Duniya Mikhail
At the turn of the century, Baba was earning a mere 2250 Iraqi dinars ($1.25) a month while coaching Iraqi second division Salah-Al-Deen of Tikrit. Through his ill health, he continued to work as a coach. His great love for the game had nearly killed him. Uday, who had not even been born when Baba first became a national hero, had all but killed his passion for football. At a time when his coaching expertise was neglected by the ruling football authorities, he turned his efforts to founding his own football school for underprivileged children.That school has already seen dozens of talented students gain places in the Iraqi junior national sides.
The sacrifices and the contributions Baba made for his people cannot be measured by the trophies he had won. At a time when Iraq was floundering, it was Baba who united the Iraqi people and brought smiles to their faces. Aptly, he was awarded the Sportsman of the Century Award in Iraq in 2000. Baba was not only the face of Iraq, he was a great ambassador of the global sport. He was highly regarded throughout the world by many greats.
He never lifted a gun, never shed blood, never joined politics, yet he became the leader people wanted to see. He passed the ball instead of hatred. He made his country relevant in the world of the global sport. His efforts did not go in vain. He left a legacy which not only the people of Iraq but the world will follow.
Portraits, pictures, or slogans are the last things that Iraq need. The youth of today need people to look up to—real life role models like Ammo Baba. May peace come soon and prevail forever. May many more Ammos born everywhere in the world. May the beautiful game continue to win hearts and spread love.
Long live Ammo Baba. Long live football.