While “The Red Devils” locked horns with “The Eagles” in the 135th FA Cup, Subhajit Sengupta spun the clock back to take through one such FA Cup final encounter at Wembley when Cù Sìth came to Birmingham’s rescue but was kept at bay by the “The Citizens” custodian, Bert Trautmann.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
– Bill Shankly must have had a face-off with Bert Trautmann right before he said that. However, his story is not all football centric in nature.
Although English clubs had seldom proved to be a fecund land for Germans, Bert Trautmann remains a name written in golden words in the English FA history. Despite his world class goalkeeping ability, he had to endure a series of agonising controversies from the English fans due to his censured past but Trautmann, by then an altered and far more matured personality, won their hearts and became one of their own. When he took the field on 5th May, 1956, a packed Wembley leaped to its feet in support of their foreign star as “The Citizens” from Manchester were lining up for their second consecutive FA Cup final.
Bernhard Carl “Bert” Trautmann was born on 22 October 1923 to a lower middle class family in Bremen. His father used to work in a fertiliser factory by the docks of Walle in west Bremen. The desolate financial struggle in the early 1930s left his father with no choice but to sell their place and moved to the working class area of Gröpelingen. The young Trautmann had a keen interest in outdoor sports especially in football, handball and völkerball (another form of dodgeball). To fulfil his appetite for playing in the green field, he joined the YMCA and football club Blau und Weiss. At a time when the Hitler youth movement was gaining widespread momentum, caught relentlessly by the spirit of the nation, the self-confident, lively but short tempered boy joined the Jungvolk, a precursor to the Hitler Youth. However, the radical political propaganda never interested him as most of his energy was spent in a wide range of sports. He was awarded a certificate for athletic excellence in 1934 signed by Paul von Hindenburg, the President of Germany. But these certificates didn’t earn daily meals for his family. So, at the onset of the Second World War, Trautmann, as the elder son of the family, took the job of an apprentice motor mechanic. Soon after the war broke out, he joined the Luftwaffe as a radio operator in 1941. During his training, he showed little aptitude for the job which resulted in a transfer to Spandau to become a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper).
Known for his unorthodox sense of humour, Trautmann had paid the price several times. The worst of it came when he was stationed in occupied Poland. One of his practical jokes involving a car backfired on him which resulted in a sergeant burning his arms. As a result, he was court-martialled and received a three-month imprisonment. However, this dark sense of humour helped him in the later course of life to survive the outrage of fans and become an entertainer in the Manchester City dressing room. In October 1941, he re-joined the 35th Infantry Division at Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Despite his unit being hit hard by the Soviet counter-offensive force which forced the Germans to withdraw their troop, Unteroffizier (corporal) Trautmann won five medals for his bravery on the Eastern Front, including an Iron Cross First Class and was later promoted to Feldwebel (sergeant) rank. During his time in the German army, he was caught thrice by the Russians, the French and the British soldiers. Though he managed to escape from captivity twice, he did not attempt a third escape from the British army as the war was drawing to a close. During his captivity under the British soldiers, he was imprisoned with other Nazi prisoners and transferred to several Prisoner of War (PoW) camps on different occasions until his final destination at PoW Camp 50 in Ashton-in-Makerfield in Lancashire.
Football was an immensely popular game amongst the prisoners of war and almost instantly Trautmann found his lost love back. He became a regular outfield player for the camp team and widely popular by the name “Bert”, as the English had trouble pronouncing “Bernd”. However, while playing against amateur team Haydock Park, he suffered an injury that forced him to switch his centre-half position with goalkeeper Gunther Luhr. Since then he made 553 senior appearances for three different clubs.
After the closure of the PoW camp, Trautmann declined an offer of repatriation and stayed in England. He took a job in a bomb disposal unit in Huyton but his love for the game started to write a different future of fame for him. The first of which came his way in August of 1948 when he signed for the non-league Liverpool County Combination club in St Helens Town. Over the season the big German’s reputation grew steadily and, almost inevitably, he became the centre of everyone’s attraction. He pulled up a record number of crowd to witness his acrobatic display between the posts regularly contributing to the club’s revenue. With his success, St Helens Town got promoted to second division of the Lancashire Combination League in 1949–50 season and Trautmann caught the eyes of the leading first division clubs. Burnley initially became favourites and landed him at Turf Moor; but in November 1949 Manchester City acquired his signature, and within a few weeks, Trautmann found himself in first division action. Moreover, his friendship with Adolf Dassler, founder of the German sportswear company Adidas, helped him to become the first sportsman in Britain to sport Adidas.
As the news of the big German’s signing spread across the media, all of England including the home fans reacted furiously. Season ticket holders threatened to boycott, and various groups in Manchester and around the country flooded the club with protest letters. Adding to the difficulties, Trautmann replaced Frank Swift, one of the greatest keepers in the club’s history and that turned out to be something unacceptable to the fans. The club captain Eric Westwood tried to minimize the hatred amongst the home crowd by announcing “There’s no war in this dressing room”. Dr Altmann, the communal rabbi of Manchester wrote an open letter stating “Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred. If this footballer is a decent fellow, I would say there is no harm in it. Each case must be judged on its own merits”. Yet the situation continued to worsen in the away matches. This reached its peak in January 1950, when City travelled to Craven Cottage, which was also Trautmann’s first visit to London. The match became the centre of widespread media attention as most of the leading British press were London-based. Amongst the crowd, several leading sports writers came to watch the German in action for the first time. During the 90 minutes of action, the crowds yelled “Kraut”, “Nazi” and “Heil Hitler” chants as Fulham managed a narrow 1-0 victory in the end. After the final whistle a different chant surrounded Craven Cottage. Trautmann’s magnificent display resulted in the majority of the crowd giving him a standing ovation and the Fulham players formed a spontaneous guard of honour as he left the pitch.
In spite of this wide spread hatred and his cult image, he remained calm. His dignified reaction spoke volumes for his strength of character. Only few would have known how much the war had changed him. The deaths and bloodshed that he faced tore him inside out. Talking about the true horrors of war, Trautmann recalled the memory of one dark cold night in Russia in October, 1941 when he and his fellow paratrooper Peter Kularz went out to investigate the sounds of shooting and they saw an area in the forest lit up with floodlights. “It was hard to take in. There were trenches dug in the ground about three metres deep and fifty metres long, and people were being herded into them and ordered to lie face down, men, women and children. Einsatzgruppen officers stood above, legs astride, shouting; a firing squad was lined up at the edge of the trenches, shooting into them. For a while everything went quiet, then another group was ordered forward and the firing squad shot another salvo into the trench”. Both of them crawled away from the place and ran for their lives as there could not be any witnesses. But these scenes made a deep impact on his later life and views. “Of course it touched me seeing this. If I’d been a bit older I’d probably have committed suicide.” But luckily he lived and became one of the most-loved and widely respected artists of the beautiful game.
The opening season at the Maine Road went dreadfully for Trautmann as City were relegated to the second division but Trautmann and company bounced back immediately. They were promoted to the first division again in the next season. By then the German had caught the eye of the country and even further. Trautmann was heavily influenced by the Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics who used to create attack by throwing the ball to a wing-half. Trautmann’s huge commanding figure combined with agility and sharp reflexes along with his fearless attitude made him a showman. His astonishing ability to grab powerful shots calmly into his enormous arms and the precision with which he stopped spot kicks made him a worthy successor of Frank Swift. Over the course of his career he stopped 60% of the spot kicks he faced. Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don’t stop to think where you’re going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.” Almost a similar statement was recorded from his fellow club mate Neil Young: “the only way to beat him with a shot in training was to mis-hit it”. All these testimonials only enriched his career but he was still yet to enter the football folklore.
Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don't stop to think where you're going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.”
In 1955, City went on to the FA Cup final for the fifth time, having won only twice in 1904 and 1934. Les McDowall and Don Revie’s newly formed system “Revie Plan” had worked out their way and they were only 90 minutes away from ending the two decade draught of winning the trophy. Unfortunately, Doug Livingstone’s men turned out to be even stronger than “The Sky Blues” of Manchester. Foggy weather and nerves got the better of McDowall’s men. Jackie Milburn took only 45 seconds to give the lead to the “Magpies”. Jimmy Meadows’ injury after 18 minutes added further to the problem as City were left with 10 men for the remaining 72 minutes as in those days the substitute rule hadn’t yet taken effect. The match ended in a comfortable 3-1 victory for Newcastle. Trautmann became the first German to feature in a FA cup final but he was still a long way from the glory.
City captain Roy Paul promised after the defeat that he would return to lift the trophy himself 12 months later and with him Trautmann also made a promise to himself: One must cross a mountain between the sticks to help the ball cross the white goal line. They both kept their words. City reached their consecutive second FA Cup final in 1956. City’s road to the final had drawn more sweat from them than Birmingham, the other finalist in that season. They had several close finishes, and even had to play a replay against Liverpool after failing to break the deadlock at Maine Road. On the other hand, Birmingham scored 18 goals in their last five games to reach the final. Quite naturally they were considered “firm favourites” to win the tie but despite the struggling run, Roy Paul and company vowed that they would fight till the final whistle all guns blazing. Who would have thought that their custodian Trautmann, who became the first goalkeeper to win the FWA Footballer of the Year award only two days before the match, was about to create history.
Both teams implemented similar formation typical of the era, 3-4-2-1. However, they deployed different tactical approaches. Birmingham, with a strong their defence, relied on powerful tackling and strong final challenges. They had a conventional open direct English approach: getting the ball to the outside-forwards as quickly as possible. But City successfully deployed their “Revie Plan” this time. The system involved using Don Revie in a deeper position than a traditional centre-forward in order to draw a defender out of position. City took only three minutes to break the deadlock. Don Revie created the move, exchanged quick passes with Roy Clarke and then back-heeled into the path of an unmarked Joe Hayes who rattled the back of the net to shake Birmingham’s confidence.
1 – 0 to City.
City kept pressing Birmingham with a series of counter attacks resulting in a number of corners but the opponents replied on the 15th minute mark. Gordon Astall poked a loose ball to Eddy Brown who suddenly felt optimistic and fired a powerful inbound shot which took a deflection off a City defender into the path of Welsh international inside‑forward Noel Kinsey. He fired home through Trautmann’s far post.
1 – 1.
With the sudden blow, Birmingham gained momentum and kept the pressure on City for the remainder of the first half. Eddy Brown twice netted the ball but both times he was ruled offside. In the second half, City made some strategic changes in their play. They concentrated on a possession-based football that made their opponents chase the ball, while Ken Barnes maintained a high line of defence and started to play in a more advance role. The change of plan worked for them. Right after the hour mark, Bobby Johnstone and Jack Dyson struck twice to take the lead to 3 – 1 in City’s favour. Just when it looked like City were going to lift their third title, something unexpected happened. With 17 minutes remaining, Birmingham forward Peter Murphy outpaced City defender Dave Ewing and rushed into the 18 yards box. Trautmann made a decisive call and dived at the feet of Murphy to win the ball only to end up suffering a fatal collision as Murphy’s right knee hit Trautmann’s neck with a forceful blow. Trautmann was knocked unconscious. Referee Alf Bond stopped play immediately.
City trainer Laurie Barnett rushed on to the pitch and treatment continued for several minutes. Barnett knew that Trautmann would not be able to continue for the remaining part, hence full back Roy Little was chosen to keep the goal and while they would play with ten men as substitutes were not permitted in those days.
When it seemed that City’s hope for the silverware had been dealt a big challenge, Trautmann did something supernatural. He stood up on his feet dazed and unsteady and insisted on keeping goal until the final whistle. City defenders tried to clear the ball as far as possible whenever it came near the box but in spite of that, Trautmann had to make two further crucial saves from Eddy Brown and Peter Murphy to deny Birmingham from coming back into the match. One such save resulted in another collision with City defender Dave Ewing that left Trautmann in complete agony. After the final whistle, City registered their third FA Cup title, ending the two decade drought and with it, Bert Trautmann entered football folklore. As the players left the field, the crowd sang a chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as a tribute to Trautmann’s bravery.
Three days after the final, doctors at Manchester Royal Infirmary revealed that he had dislocated five vertebrae, the second of which was cracked in two. The third vertebra had wedged against the second, preventing further damage which could have cost Trautmann his life.
Trautmann took a long time before coming back to the field again which resulted in him missing a large part of the 1956-57 season. Even after he regained his place in the starting XI, he lacked his confidence. The following 1957-58 season, City became the only English first division side till date to both score and concede 100 goals in a season. He could sense that he was not the same keeper he used to be but he didn’t give up. He slowly picked up the pieces and in 1960, he became the first German to be selected for the Football League, an honour compounded when he was awarded the captaincy.
Being a football romantic, I’ve considered this question many times. How did it feel to be Bert Trautmann? A man having his hands stained with the blood of innocents. Should I detest him for his actions as a German soldier or should I respect him for the artist he was on the green field? Then Trautmann answered “I volunteered when I was 17,” he said. “People say ‘why?’, but when you are a young boy war seems like an adventure. Then, when you’re involved in fighting its very different, you see all the horrible things that happen, the death, the bodies, the scariness. You can’t control yourself. Your whole body is shaking and you’re making a mess in your pants.” He also recollected how England had changed him. “When people ask me about life, I say my education began when I got to England. I learnt about humanity, tolerance and forgiveness.” Bert Trautmann showed us the way of reforming ones character. Of course he made terrible mistakes in his life. Being a part of Hitler’s army that killed millions of innocent people, leaving behind Margaret Friar, his first wife while she was pregnant…they all seem unforgivable sins but we must remember that human beings tend to make mistakes and the greatest example of humanity is set only by learning from the mistakes and rectifying them. Trautmann did exactly the same. He became such an icon whom people followed, not only for his goalkeeping excellence but also for his humanist ideology. Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, England international Gordon Banks, these are some of the names who had cited Trautmann as their inspiration. What’s interesting is that in order to come back to a normal life, he chose a lifeless object that over the ages had spread life into countless lives. Football.
In spite of being considered as one of the best goalkeepers of his era, he never got the opportunity to represent his homeland. He met with the German national coach Sepp Herberger in 1953 who explained that travel and political implications prevented him from selecting a player who was not readily available but he could consider including Trautmann if he were playing in a German league.
Bernhard Carl Trautmann played his testimonial match for Manchester City in 1964 where more than 47,000 people came to watch the master for the very last time.
After his retirement, he had hoped for the managerial role at Maine Road but he was left disappointed. An initial financial setback struck him but his love for the game never faded away. He started his managerial role from Stockport County. Later he went back to his homeland to manage Preußen Münster and Opel Rüsselsheim. Though he lacked silverware as a manager, his work caught the right attention and, subsequently, took him to managing Burma, Tanzania, Liberia, Pakistan and North Yemen. On 19th July, 2013, when Trautmann breathed his last, he didn’t have his Iron Cross with him, but had only the love of the people he earned through his transformed life in the green field.
There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester – Trautmann.
Lev Ivanovich Yashin
When politics and bullet shells failed to bring peace, football provided the greatest asylum to numerous homeless people across Europe. During the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, the beautiful game provided solace.
Love is a touch of solitude that can wipe tears from the weariest of eyes. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once said – “Sport can reach parts politicians can’t reach. It can help in bringing divided conflicts together in a way nothing else can.” Football has just achieved what could not be achieved by any noble political propaganda. It has become the silver lining for hundreds and thousands of refugees and asylum seekers all over the world. The beautiful game has become the key factor to bring back hope to these people which was lost overseas, spread love, build strength and courage and unite them. The loud cry of this uncontrollable human flood couldn’t be suppressed but yet there is hope that the smiles that the game of love has brought beyond borders and races wouldn’t fade away.
“Today the world finds itself facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War” , EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos stated in a press conference in August, 2015. By the start of 2016, the number has reached up to 82,636 people according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The biggest reason of migration being the armed conflict in Syria, ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, and poverty in Kosovo leading people to look for new lives elsewhere. In such a situation, several European countries have used the power of football to raise awareness and help to overcome the exclusion of refugees and asylum seekers. The goal is to let these people create a vivid image of life, leaving behind the darkness and shattered dreams of past. Football has played a significant role to break down barriers and build bridges between communities. It is the non violent way of providing a sense of self worth setting aside cultural differences. Today, we look at two of the most powerful football nations in the world and how they have used the beautiful game to unite people around the world.
Here to stay, here to play
Germany, which has a war-torn history, has become the home for the largest number of refugees across the world. FC Lampedusa Hamburg is an amateur football team based in the northern German city of Hamburg and comprised entirely of refugees and asylum seekers. This is an unique club beyond the radars of hotly contested European leagues that is leaving a mark by making history.
In the winter of 2012, about 300 refugees, predominately West African migrants arrived in Hamburg. They came from the Italian island of Lampedusa where primarily they were given shelter when they fled from Libya due to civil war violence. When the Italian government stopped the funding, these people were forced to leave the country and they came to Germany looking for their next destination. Initially in Hamburg, they were provided with government-funded shelter, but that was quickly taken away as the government demanded these people return to Italy. They thought there was a sudden influx of refugees in across Europe. The Lampedusa refugees refused to leave the country and first time chanted the slogan that later came to define their team: “We are here to stay – we are here to play!”
With the help of local residents and fans of FC St.Pauli (a football team that prides itself on its anti-racist and anti-fascist tradition), these people were warmly welcomed and given shelter in St.Pauli Church. FC St.Pauli has a team of five coaching staff and all of them are women. They took the initiative to build a new football team with these people and formed a self-organized football club FC Lampedusa Hamburg.
Hagar Groeteke one of the coaching staff explained: “You don’t need papers to live in our city and you don’t need papers to play football”. The team welcomes all refugees and migrants, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation over the age of 16. You don’t need papers to join the team; all you need is the desire and passion to play football. FC Lampedusa neither plays to compete in the big European leagues nor do they hope to win any trophies. Their goal is to make football authorities realize that football is for everyone. FC Lampedusa Hamburg wants to create an awareness and draw attention to the evils of European refugee policy and the situation of refugees in Hamburg, in Germany and in the European Community. But initially they had to face some difficulties.The team started off playing in an amateur league and were pitted against l United Glasgow Football Club, another club that was formed by immigrants and refugees. Most clubs didn’t want refugees playing simply because they couldn’t speak German nor could they afford to buy shoes. Groeteke tried to handle the situation. She consulted some of the players if they wanted to be trained by a regular club, but most of them declined. They clarified that they wanted to play for a team where they will receive equal treatment, and respect.St.Pauli Church took a step forward to provide the team with their very own equipment. Ibrahim, one of the squad members seemed delighted as he showed off his new boots sponsored by the Church. “We love playing football here, this is a football loving country. This is the best time of our life when we go to the training ground and show what we are capable of.” Another popular center-forward said “When I play with FC Lampedusa, I don’t feel like I’m alone. I have many friends here.” People like Ibrahim, Alee have found a new life here, making memories for tomorrow although they are still uncertain of their future. They are yet to receive any valid paper from the government that will validate their residential authority in Germany. Though every new dawn presents itself with new opportunities, they are yet to recover from the darkest hours of their lives when they lost their families. “I have no idea where they are now, may God save them.” – Alee said. Time, they say, is the best healer, but it is the one thing they are uncertain of. However, as long as they are attached to the beautiful game, it will continue to make them stronger and set a new direction to life.
From a purely footballing perspective, FC Lampedusa is maturing as a football team every day. In the 2016 Zabihullah Hakimi Cup, they went up to last eight where they were beaten by another team formed by refugees,Roter Kickers 05 Ahrensburg 0-1. In future they might even win tournaments, but the result is not so important for them as long as they get the chance to express themselves.
All colors are beautiful
11th October, 2015 was perhaps the most memorable day for some of the big names of Italian football and for those who had discovered a new life through this beautiful game. Giuseppe Giannini, Vincent Candela, Alessio Scarchilli, Stefano Desideri, Max Tonetto and many other former AS Roma legends came to the XXV Aprile sports facility ground to play a friendly match against Liberi Nantes, the first team in Rome formed by refugees and asylum seekers. The result of the match was equally unbelievable as the entire event. Trailing 0-2 in the half time, Liberi Nantes went on to draw the match 3-3.
Italian football is not free from racism. Players like Kevin Constant, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli have gone through that in recent years. Despite certain measures taken by FIGC and the Government, when racism could not be eradicated totally, a common man came forward. His name is Alberto Urbinati, a diehard Lazio fan. “I’m a football fan. I used to go to the stadium to watch matches but I didn’t like certain atmosphere. Fans doing racist chants. So I thought something has to be done to stop this using the same tool, football. That’s when I decided to found Liberi Nantes.”
When Alberto Urbinati decided to form the club in 2007, he went to different detention centers across Rome. Initially many of the refugees had no idea what he was talking about. But as soon as they came close to the beautiful game, they realized that life can indeed be beautiful in many ways. Daniela Conti, President of Liberi Nantes explained, “Liberi means free and Nantes is a Latin word which means sailor. Our logo is a sea turtle which represents the thought that everybody has the right to travel.” Realistically though, people are not free (yet). They are and will be bound by the man-made imaginary lines drawn between lands. And when someone has to cross that line in their need to live, they face a certain tragedy. Mohamed Singhateh, one of the defensive midfielders of Liberi Nantes, shared his horrifying experience when he crossed the Mediterranean sea. “I am from Gambia. I used to play football there. I left Gambia in 2012. Then I came to Senegal, from there to here is a long journey. It’s all risky and it’s all smuggling. The people who help us to cross the border keep us hidden in a place until the time comes. Sometimes without food, may be only water for days. When the day comes, we cross the sea in a wooden boat with about 800 people from different countries. I have seen so many people pass away in the journey, some of whom I had become friends with.” The team is mainly formed by people from Gambia, Mali, Togo and Ivory-Coast who have an uncertain future; people who are waiting in the detention centres for years to receive their papers and earn the right to live in the country.
Salvatore Lisciandrello is the coach of Liberi Nantes. He dreams of making some of them future stars to represent their country. He had prior experience of coaching refugee teams elsewhere in Italy so he offered his service to Liberi Nantes. He motivates his team by saying that if they want to help themselves in this difficult time, football is the way to understand how society works. “Liberi Nantes plays in the Terza Categoria, the bottom division in Italy. If I remember correctly there are 9 or 10 promotions before getting to Serie A. So you see clearly, it doesn’t matter if we win or lose but of course they feel a little bad when we lose…” Salvatore explained. But even if we are optimistic, we must think rationally. Even if Liberi Nantes gets promoted, they will never be allowed to take part in Serie A because of too many foreign players in their team. But that was not why Salvatore or Urbinati started the team in the first place. The purpose is to make the players and the people associated with the club, forget about their difficult life and hope to create a better one. It brings people closer. Gora Ndiave is another player in the club who also works as a scout. Whenever he finds any refugee or asylum seeker interested in football, he brings them straight to his club. He thinks it’s better to come and watch them play than doing nothing back at the detention center. The calm environment benefits everyone who is associated with the club.
Having supported by little donations, Liberi Nantes has managed to get lease of the XXV Aprile sports facility ground at a cost of 100 euro per square meter. They use it to practice football and improve their skills. They came second for the second consecutive year in the Terza Categoria League. But, most importantly, they are creating dreams for those who seek to find a new life. They are helping those people who wish to overcome the shame of being rejected by society. Football here is not only a sport but a way to create hope for a new life.
More recently, two short films are being made (one of which is being made by The Guardian) on how Liberi Nantes has become a relevant name to hundreds of homeless people in Italy and how they have used the power of the beautiful game to unite people. We can only hope that they manage to find the right amount of attention which might help more people earn the right to live and right to play the beautiful game.
“I knew that we could bring a lot of people together. More than politicians. The country is divided because of politicians; we are playing football, we are running behind a ball, and we managed to bring people together.” – Didier Drogba.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara once said “Football is a weapon of revolution”. Such revolution can only bring liberation, peace and spread love. It’s not only about the 11 players who perform on the pitch but millions who live the moment off the pitch. Football has played its role in dramatic human crises for the recovery of human dignity, personal reconstruction and friendly relations. All over the world, more such teams like Atlético de Pinto in Spain, United Glasgow in Scotland are coming up and they are involved in this noble cause of using the power of football to raise awareness. People all over the world have joined the movement. European giants like Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid are widely supporting the cause. AS Roma is supporting Liberi Nantes in their attempt to stem the crisis.
Humans have drawn the imaginary lines, divided people by their tongue or skin color but there remains the mighty leather ball. A lifeless object which has indiscriminately infused life and spread love among millions of living beings. It continues to make us believe that we may belong to different lands, speak different tongues but our hearts beat for the game of love, the game of football.
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.