|Sunday, December 22
Updated: December 23, 2:51 PM ET
'What did we do wrong? Nobody knows but Uday'
By Sharar Haydar
as told to Tom Farrey
Special to ESPN.com
He's a nice guy.
That's what I remember thinking. The first time I met Uday Saddam Hussein, he seemed like a decent person, like a normal Iraqi. Not like the son of a dictator known for his brutal ways. Sure, Uday had pulled me out of class one day to summon me for this meeting -- not something any ordinary Iraqi could do. But as he sat across from me in his office, he talked comfortably. He laughed. I thought to myself, he is nothing like his father.
"Next year I want to see him on the first team!" he told them.
As I'm walking out the door, Uday gave me 50 dinars -- less than one dollar to Americans but good money to me.
I soon realized how wrong I had read this man. Al-Rashid played in the top division of the Iraqi club league and also competed internationally. To ensure victory, Uday handpicked the best players from other clubs around the country and placed them on al-Rashid, which of course made us very hated. Every single game we played, all of the fans were against us -- 40,000 or 50,000 people shouting profanities. I mean, we couldn't even walk in the streets without everybody swearing at us.
Uday put huge pressure on us to win. We were the champions and one of the best club teams in all of Asia, but we were punished quite a lot. If we lost, he would take some of the players to his prison at the Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters for several days. Sometimes longer. The first time it happened to me, after a 1-0 loss to a rival in the club league, I was locked up for four or five days with several other players and the coach. He let the coach out each afternoon to conduct practice for the rest of the team.
Uday got meaner as time went on. I was tortured for the first time in 1993, after the Iraqi national team lost 2-0 to Jordan in the finals of a tournament. I was brought to the Olympic prison, where I joined three other players. Why the four of us? What did we do wrong? Nobody knows but Uday. But from there we were taken to another prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, the notorious al-Radwaniya, where many Iraqis have been tortured.
We were beaten for four days, sleeping for no more than 30 minutes at a time on a hard floor with no blankets or pillows. The guards terrorized us in many ways. One time, they woke us up and told us, "We want you to catch a fly, and we want it to be male, not female." Well, one of my teammates, Habib Jaffa, one of the best Iraqi players, caught the fly and showed it to the torturers, who said, "No, that's male. It needs to be female."
Uday himself liked to play mind games with us. Twice during my career -- in 1988 when with the junior national team and again in 1990 before a game against our rival Iran -- he threatened to blow up the plane on our return flight if we did not win. Turns out nothing happened, but we could never be sure when dealing with Uday. Sometimes he would keep us four hours after a game, letting us think we were going to be punished, then at midnight tell us, "No, go home now. But I won't forget. I will watch you next game."
And he would. Uday usually watched us play on television. For the big international games, he had a telephone with a speaker set up in the locker room so he could tell us what to do at halftime. It didn't matter what the coaches thought. Uday would tell us to play this or that way and scream at us. I remember him telling Jaffa, "You son of a bitch!" and threatening to torture him again if he didn't follow his instructions in the second half.
Uday would have none of it. His bodyguards came to my house at 2:30 in the morning and took me from my bed. My parents started crying because in Iraq, if they come take you from your house, you're never going to come back. They drove me to the Olympic headquarters, where one of his bodyguards handed me a walkie-talkie. Uday was on the other end.
"So, why don't you like to play for the great Iraq?" he said.
"Well, I've been playing for the Iraq national team for five years now, but I don't feel very well," I told him. "I've got an ulcer -- a bleeding ulcer -- so I can't continue."
He asked me to return to practice the next day because at the time the 1994 World Cup in the United States was looming, and it was very important that we qualify. (We didn't.)
I mustered the strength to suggest, "Well, let your doctor examine me and if he says I am able to play, I will. If he says no, I can't."
Uday responded, "I will show you how you can and you can't."
He took me right to the Olympic prison, where the guards whipped my feet -- a traditional Arab punishment called falaqa -- 20 times a day for three days. They gave me nothing to eat or drink other than a daily glass of water and slice of bread. Then they sent me to al-Radwaniya again for four more days of punishment, and this time I got the full treatment.
I was greeted at al-Radwaniya with what is known as "The Reception." They took my clothes off, laid me down on my back and dragged me by my legs across hot pavement until my back was a bloody mess. Then they made me roll in the sand. And just to make sure that the wounds got infected, I had to climb a 15-foot ladder and jump repeatedly into a pit of sewage water filled with blood and who knows what else.
All because I wanted to stop playing soccer.
You have to understand, Uday treats Iraqi athletes as his property. There were nights when my teammates were summoned at 2 a.m. to the field at his palace simply because he wanted to test his skills at that late hour against Iraq's best players. Of course, Uday isn't any good -- he's got funny legs -- but everybody's terrified because you have to give him the ball. And if you're on the other team, you can't challenge him. You try to show some defense but you really can't attack him.
I'm lucky. I was imprisoned only four times, less than many of my teammates. For me, the last time was in 1995 when I was thinking of defecting to Hungary. Uday somehow found out that I had applied for a visa and pulled me right off the practice field one afternoon. I spent the next four days in the Olympic prison, but thankfully, wasn't tortured that time. Uday just told me to never do it again.
I played with the national team until 1998, when I finally defected. I'm living in London now, working as a sports editor at an international Arabic-language newspaper and earning the certificates necessary to become a coach someday. I like it here; people are considerate. But the Iraqi people are modern and civilized, as well; their ancestors once invented the wheel and helped introduce mathematics to the world. It's just Uday that makes going home impossible, for now.
No longer a young athlete, I now know all too well that Uday is not normal.
He's just mad, like his father and the rest of his family.
The above article was written with the help of ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey, who interviewed him in London.