Saddam's soccer days

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Posted by Jeff from ( on Saturday, March 29, 2003 at 5:54PM :

Saddam's soccer days
Fri Mar 28, 1:09 PM ET

By Guido Nejamkis

BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) liked to party, tell jokes and speak Spanish when he was not busy being a dictator, according to a Brazilian (news - web sites) soccer coach who used to dine with the Iraqi leader once a week.

Reuters Photo

"I know he is a dictator, a tyrant, an uncompromising person, but I cannot complain about how he treated me," said Jorge Vieira, who helped Iraq (news - web sites) qualify for their first and only World Cup soccer finals in Mexico in 1986.

Vieira held the job for 15 months during the Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam and his elder son Uday, head of Iraq's soccer federation and Olympic Committee, wanted success on the sports field as a boost to national pride.

"He is more severe than his father but he was always respectful with me," Vieira said of Uday. "Often British clubs wanted to hire Iraqi players, but Uday didn't authorize the transfers," he told Reuters.

Vieira said he had no knowledge to support widely published reports that Uday, who is in charge of the Fedayeen militia helping to fight U.S. and British troops in the war in Iraq, had soccer players and other athletes tortured if they lost.

"Uday made us an example. He believed that if people saw he was not afraid to beat a hero, that they would live in greater fear," former soccer star Sharar Haydar, who now lives in London, was quoted as saying in U.S. weekly Sports Illustrated.

Vieira said one of his most vivid memories of Saddam was the surprise of learning that the Iraqi leader spoke Spanish.

At first they communicated through an interpreter, but one day Saddam asked the interpreter to leave them alone.

"He asked me if I was scared and he told me he understood everything I told the interpreter," Vieira recalled. "I told him I wasn't scared and asked him why he hadn't talked in Spanish to me from the beginning.

"He said he first wanted to know me. Like all dictators, he is distrustful. He doesn't trust anybody."

Once the trust barrier was overcome, Vieira said Saddam "talked about soccer, politics, parties. He told jokes, a lot of jokes. He is a human being like any other."

Vieira, who is from Rio de Janeiro, said Saddam even had something of Rio's relaxed style. "He liked the good life," he said.

-- Jeff
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