back in the day

When a League of Ireland side travelled to a 'war zone' for a game against Iraq

The World Cup warm-up match for the Iraqi team was part of the birthday celebrations of Saddam Hussein.

91800274_517416972275330_5206127621250744320_n Haitham Fathallah The squad of League of Ireland players pictured before taking on Iraq in 1986. Haitham Fathallah

BY THE TIME the media got wind of it, the 19-strong contingent had already taken off from Dublin Airport.

A terse reference to the trip was carried on the front of the Irish Press.

One side of the lower half of the page reported that gardaí had used batons to prevent Shamrock Rovers fans from invading the Dalymount Park pitch before the full-time whistle in the previous day’s FAI Cup final.

On the opposite side, ‘Bishop’s condom warning’ was the headline on a piece that carried quotes from the Archbishop of Dublin, who warned that “the chemist who gives out contraceptives other than for a medical need is co-operating directly in an immoral act by another person.”

Shoehorned in between the two articles was a 46-word panel, titled ‘Irish play in war zone’. It told readers of the now-defunct national newspaper that a squad of League of Ireland players had been hastily mobilised to travel 4,500 kilometres to play a game that evening against a team that was preparing to compete at the World Cup.

“Billy Young of Bohemians was managing the team,” recalls one of the players, Athlone Town’s James Coll. “When I got off the phone to him, I turned to my girlfriend – who’s now my wife – and said: ‘I have to go away tomorrow for a few days.’

“When she asked me where I was going and I said Baghdad, she couldn’t believe it. ‘You can’t go there, it’s in the middle of a war,’ she said. But all I knew was that I was going to play a football match.”

`cx`x Irish Press A section of the front page of the Irish Press on 28 April, 1986. Irish Press

Five weeks out from their opening fixture at Mexico 86, Iraq were scheduled to play a warm-up game at their Al-Shaab Stadium. 

When their original opponents withdrew, the Iraqi Football Association’s search for a late replacement led them to Louis Kilcoyne. Kick-off was just over 48 hours away when the Shamrock Rovers chairman took the call. 

“The offer of the game – and with it a healthy boost to the league’s financial reserves – came on Saturday morning to Shamrock Rovers official Louis Kilcoyne,” Charlie Stuart reported in the Irish Press on the morning of the game – Monday, 28 April. “Manager Billy Young and Kilcoyne worked feverishly on Saturday to assemble a panel of 15 players.” 

The Irish Independent also reported the unusual development, with Noel Dunne writing: “The story goes that the Iraq gentlemen were let down at the last minute by an unnamed foreign power and so turned to the League of Ireland to help them out of their dilemma. Obviously the fame of our domestic game has spread wider than one would have imagined!”

Kilcoyne, Young, the 15 players, physio Mick Byrne and League of Ireland president Brendan Duffy convened in Dublin for the flight to Baghdad on the Sunday morning.

That afternoon, Shamrock Rovers defended the FAI Cup at the expense of Waterford United. The clash meant none of the players from the two clubs that contested the final were available to represent the League of Ireland XI that was en route to the Middle East while Rovers were completing the double with a 2-0 win.

louis-kilcoyne Billy Stickland / INPHO Louis Kilcoyne co-ordinated the League of Ireland XI's trip to Iraq. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Owing to stormy weather during a stopover in Rome, it was 5am on the Monday morning – 12 hours before kick-off – when the Irish visitors finally arrived in the Iraqi capital.

Baghdad was frequently a battleground during Iraq’s ongoing war with neighbouring Iran, an eight-year conflict that claimed more than a million lives.

“You heard a few things in the news every now and again, but it was only when we got there and walked around that we started to recognise it was a dangerous place to be,” says Coll.

“There were guards with guns with us all the time, but we didn’t want to go very far from the hotel anyway. It was a five-star hotel, pure quality, but as soon as we walked out a bit, there was a lot of poverty from war. It was unbelievable to see it.

“There was a lot of wealth around us in the small area where the hotel was, but it was a massive change beyond that. There was a sort of eeriness about it.”

The game formed part of a series of sporting events which were being held to mark the 49th birthday of the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein.

PA-1656188 ABACA / PA Images Iraqi president Saddam Hussein poses with a rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG) during the Iran-Iraq war. ABACA / PA Images / PA Images

“The safest place in these situations is probably always on the football pitch,” says Gino Lawless, who captained the League of Ireland XI in Iraq. “You’re a bit detached from any sense of fear when you’re getting ready in a dressing room.”

Lawless, who was on the cusp of a transfer from Bohemians to Dundalk, adds: “The hotel was incredible. The highest standard, marble everywhere. But when you looked out your window at all the other rooftops, you could see these big machine guns pointing up to the sky.

“They were in the height of the war at the time. There were big billboards of Saddam everywhere you went. They must have been 20 or 30 feet high.”

The League of Ireland XI’s opponents had been hailed as heroes in Iraq after securing World Cup qualification for the first time in the nation’s history. They achieved that feat despite having to play all their home qualifiers at neutral venues while the war continued.

The players were rewarded with cars and apartments, but representing the national team wasn’t always such a lucrative pursuit while Uday Hussein, Saddam’s eldest son, served as head of the Iraqi FA.

Basil Gorgis played for Iraq against the League of Ireland XI and at the World Cup later that year. In a 2014 interview with FourFourTwo, he said of Uday: “œHe was a thug. He called us and threatened us with things like physical abuse and sending us to the front lines of the war.”

92053139_567445084129846_3673307007953141760_n Haitham Fathallah James Coll puts in a tackle on Iraq's Falah Hassan. Haitham Fathallah

Iraqi players told The Guardian in 2003 that Uday’s motivational techniques included threats to cut off players’ legs and throw them to ravenous dogs. Abbas Rahim Zair, having missed a penalty in a shootout against Jordan in 1999, was condemned to three weeks in a prison camp.

“Before the game kicked off, the whole stadium started applauding for someone,” says James Coll. “We didn’t really pay attention to who it was for at the time, but I assume now that it was Saddam. We definitely weren’t introduced to him or anything while we were there.”

Gino Lawless adds: “I think it was Saddam’s son who actually came into the dressing room after the game – we didn’t really know who he was – and he shook hands with a few of us. That was about it.”

A crowd estimated to be in the region of 25,000 was in attendance for Iraq’s penultimate warm-up game before their departure for Mexico (they later played a friendly against Bundesliga club Schalke).

The home side, coached by Edu Coimbra, the brother of Brazil legend Zico, took the lead in the first half through a header from Ahmed Radhi, who also went on to become the country’s only World Cup goalscorer – a title he still holds to this day.

“It was about 80 degrees [fahrenheit], maybe even hotter,” Lawless says. “We were out on our feet after about 20 minutes. We were like camels when we got in at half-time.”

PA-699128 EMPICS Sport Ahmed Radhi (right) playing for Iraq against Paraguay at the 1986 World Cup. EMPICS Sport

Ahmed Radhi’s goal was ultimately the difference between the two teams, but James Coll remains adamant that the League of Ireland XI should have earned a draw.

Amid some overhead distractions, Tommy Gaynor appeared to have levelled the game when he beat Iraq goalkeeper Raad Hammoudi. However, the Limerick City attacker’s goal was ruled out by the Iraqi officials, who were perhaps conscious of the potentially grave consequences of thwarting a home victory. 

“The whole crowd stood up at one point during the game and started cheering and applauding because gun planes that were going to war flew over the stadium,” says Coll. “It was a bit frightening and it actually kind of brought the game to a standstill. I think it might have had an effect on Tommy’s goal as well. It should have stood, to be honest with you.

“The match stalled for a bit after the planes. We broke then and Tommy scored, but they ended up flagging it for offside. But I thought the goal was fine. A 1-1 result might have been fair, but either way we did decent enough for part-timers playing away against a team that was going to the World Cup.”

Back home, details of the game were understandably sketchy in the next day’s newspapers. Alongside a report on how West Ham United had beaten Manchester City 1-0 despite “the rugged challenges of Mick McCarthy on Frank McAvennie”, the Cork Examiner published a brief summary of what played out in Baghdad. 

“Iraq beat a League of Ireland selection 1-0 in a World Cup warm-up soccer match, played before a crowd of 25,000 in Baghdad yesterday. The only goal of the game was scored by Radhi in the 34th minute.”

91287271_150570312984688_4448556739549200384_n Haitham Fathallah Baghdad's Al-Shaab Stadium was the venue for the game. Haitham Fathallah

Thirty-four years is ample time for memories to slip through the cracks, but one of James Coll’s most vivid recollections of the trip to Baghdad is from the aftermath of the game: “We were back in the hotel and this crew of Iraqi guys arrived in with a briefcase full of cash.”

The players each received £250, with Louis Kilcoyne informing the next meeting of the League of Ireland’s management committee that the league had profited from the game to the tune of more than £2,000.

Iraq would exit the 1986 World Cup at the group stage, suffering one-goal defeats to Paraguay, hosts Mexico and eventual semi-finalists Belgium.

The results represented another dose of disappointment for Iraqi football fans, who had been perplexed by the absence of a couple of superstar Inter Milan and Manchester United footballers when the Irish arrived in town weeks earlier.

To the locals, it had been billed as a game against the Republic of Ireland national team which had just been taken over by Jack Charlton.

“No matter how much we told them,” Gino Lawless said in an interview with the Evening Herald upon his return to Dublin, “they still couldn’t understand that Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton don’t play for our team.”

AP Archive / YouTube

IRAQ: Raad Hammoudi (captain); Khalil Allawi, Maad Ibrahim, Samir Shaker, Ghanim Oraibi (Jamal Ali, 73); Basil Gorgis, Shaker Mahmoud, Ali Hussein Shihab, Haris Mohammed; Falah Hassan, Ahmed Radhi (Rahim Hamed, 73).

LEAGUE OF IRELAND XI: Richie Blackmore (Galway United); Eamonn Gregg (St Patrick’s Athletic), Tom Conway (Bohemians), Barry Murphy (Bohemians), James Coll (Athlone Town); Larry Wyse (Bohemians) (Dave O’Brien – Bohemians, HT), Anto Whelan (Cork City) (Paul Mullen – Shelbourne, 66), Joey Malone (Dundalk), Tommy Lynch (Limerick City) (Mark Meagan – St Patrick’s Athletic, HT); Gino Lawless (Bohemians, captain) (Des Kennedy – Limerick City, 66), Tommy Gaynor (Limerick City).

Referee: Salah Mohammed Karim (Iraq). 

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