Ammo Baba: The Amazing Story Of Iraq's Football Legend

Goal.com's Hassanin Mubarak pays tribute to a true legend of Iraqi football who sadly passed away this week...
The Iraqi football community is in mourning with the news that the former national team player and coach, Ammo Baba, passed away on Wednesday evening at the age of 74 after complications with his health. 

The legendary figure had been suffering from diabetes for many years and was earlier this year diagnosed with prostate cancer after he fell ill at the Gulf Cup in Muscat.

His health took a turn for the worst on Wednesday and he subsequently died.

Emmanuel Baba Dawud was born on November 27, 1934, on the RAF base in Hinaidi, Baghdad, where his father was employed by the British.

His family moved to the city of Habbaniya in 1937 and it was there that the young Ammo first encountered the game of football, watching British soldiers playing matches on the dusty fields of the RAF base. As there were no balls to kick around at home, he would stuff pieces of fabric into a sock to substitute as a ball.

It was his mother that encouraged him to play football and in his youth he was not only a talented footballer but also an all-round sportsman, being one of the fastest 400 metre runners in the country.  

He was spotted by coach Ismail Mohammed, who not only selected him to play for the Iraqi schoolboys in the second Pan-Arab School Championship held in 1951 in Cairo, where Ammo made his debut playing one half of the match against the home nation, but also gave him his nickname ‘Ammo Baba’, meaning Uncle Father in Arabic.

He trained for two months in Baghdad under the supervision of the coach with the schoolboys; however, as his schooling was in English and Aramaic, he could not communicate in Arabic with his fellow team-mates and could only smile when asked a question.

Ammo owed a lot to the great coach who discovered him and transferred him from Habbaniya to Baghdad, where he played for Haris Al-Maliki (Royal Guards).  

On January 30, 1955, at the tender age of 20 and less than month after moving to Baghdad, he made his debut in Iraq’s first military match in a CISM World Military Championship qualifier.

Iraq came up against Egypt at the Al-Kashafa Stadium and Ammo played alongside the great Nassir Chico and Adil Abdullah, leading the forward line onslaught on Egypt’s goal. Ammo was known as being strong in the tackle and would often have scraps and bruises at the end of matches after battling with defenders.

He would often be kicked throughout matches but, not wanting to show his opponent he was beaten, Ammo would not go down easily.

The Egyptians were impressed by the youngster and the level he had displayed. At the final whistle, his man marker came up to him and shook his hands and told him he had played well, as did many other of the players.  

By the late 1950s, Ammo was the best forward in the country, and in Iraq’s first international match against Morocco at the 1957 Pan-Arab Games in Beirut, he netted Iraq’s first international goal.

In Iraq’s second game against Tunisia, Ammo became the first Iraqi player to be sent off, after arguing with the referee.

Ammo scored some memorable goals in his career. One that fans still talk about to this day was the bicycle kick - or a backward double-kick, as the Iraqis call it - that he scored against Tunisia at the Local Administration ground in Mansour (now known as Al-Karkh Stadium). It was so famous that the Tunisians would still remember it decades later.

Ammo was sent to England for treatment by King Faisal for an injury he picked up in a local game in 1958 and while the country was in the throes of the 14 July Revolution led by General Abdul-Karim Qasim, Ammo was in London thinking over a move to the English Football League.

The Iraqi Embassy in London, however, told him that the new Iraqi leader wanted him back in his homeland, and after the Iraqi government promised him a job and good salary, and being concerned for his family after the unrest in the country, he returned and would stay there until his death, turning down many offers to play and coach for clubs abroad during his long and illustrious career. 

In the Iraq league, Ammo played for Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and then moved to Assyrian club Nadi Athori, where he was appointed in a player-coach role and captained the club. He won the Iraqi championship in 1960 at the age of just 24, but after two years the club were relegated and many of their best players moved to other top teams in the league.

Ammo rejoined Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and was promoted to the rank of Major General but after he refused to join the Baath Party in 1964, he was stripped of his rank and left the Air Force club to join public transport side Al-Maslaha.

After political change in the country with new leader Abdul-Rahman Arif, Ammo returned to the military and joined Kuliya Al-Askariya, where he spent two seasons before rejoining Al-Maslaha as a player-coach. 

The prolific marksman was once the captain of a short-lived Arab national team during the mid-1960s, in an experiment in Arab unity inspired by the Pan Arab movement led by Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

It had been the initiative of popular Arab radio station Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) in Cairo, and two of the best players from each Arab country were called up to take part in the team. From Iraq, Ammo Baba and Qais Hamed were selected.

The team organised in Egypt did not play in any international competitions, facing only a few local teams in Cairo and Alexandria. Ammo Baba, alongside Qais Hamed, and the team were able to beat Al-Ismailia, Al-Ittihad Alexandria, draw with Zamalek and lost one match to Tersana, with Ammo scoring the first goal for the Arab team, while hitting two goals against Al-Ismailia.

At the Pan-Arab Games held in Cairo that same year, Iraq, coached by wily tactician Shawqi Aboud, were one of the favourites with the attacking talents of captain Ammo Baba, Qasim ‘Zuwiya’ Mahmoud, Husham Atta Ajaj and Qais Hamed in their side.

Their tournament kicked off against Aden. In the second half against the Yemenis, the Iraqi team were 4-0 up with Ammo scoring two goals; however, a reckless tackle from defender Saeed Athab put him out of the game.

Iraq went onto score two more goals but the injury to Ammo put a dampener on the victory, and in the next three matches the Iraqi team managed only one goal without their captain.

The injury to his knee threatened to end his career, but luckily resulted in a full recovery. At the age of 32, Ammo quickly rediscovered his form and returned to the national team for the Tripoli Tournament after a two-year absence.

In Libya, Ammo helped Iraq to the title over fellow Arab nations Libya and Sudan. Scoring his last international goal against Sudan and then two days later on the March 12, 1967, he made his last ever-international appearance in the 1-0 win over the hosts.

His record with the national team stood at 11 goals in 11 matches.  

Ammo returned to his former team Kuliya Al-Askariya in 1968 after stint as player-coach with Al-Maslaha and two years later in 1970, Ammo finally hung up his boots after a game against Aliyat Al-Shurta, which his team lost 5-0.

In 1971, he was appointed as the head coach of the Kuliya Al-Askariya after three years working as a coach and assistant coach. While coaching with the military team, Ammo was also learning his trade under the guidance of Iraqi national coach Danny McLennan, and Abdelilah Mohammed Hassan during the '70s.

At the beginning of the first official Iraqi league in season 1974-75, Ammo coached the newly created Nadi Al-Jaish, a club formed from the result of a merger of the Army teams such as his own Kuliya Al-Askariya.

Ammo became Iraq’s most successful national coach, winning the Gulf Cup on three occasions in 1979, 1984 and 1988, the 1988 Arab Cup and leading team to the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games.

Well known for speaking his own mind, he was one of the few people in Iraqi football or in the country for that matter to have the audacity to openly confront Saddam Hussein’s son, the former Iraq FA president Uday, on his judgements.

After the defeat to Italy at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, media pressure was directed at Ammo, who was heavily blamed for the loss.

An article in Baath Al-Riyadhi written under the name of Abbas Al-Janabi (but ordered by Uday) claimed that Ammo was a failure as a coach as he did not listen to others, adding that the Iraqi team should have defended for the first 20 minutes and then played on counterattack because of the strength of the Italian side.

The previous Olympic exit in 1984 in Los Angeles saw Ammo heavily criticised for his formation and game plan for the last group game against Yugoslavia, which Iraq lost 4-2, and the article also insulted the coach by questioning his past and ethnicity and his association with the British in his early career at the RAF base in Habbaniya.

Ammo Baba fought back and lambasted the authorities in charge of sports in Iraq over the lack of resources and support to the national team during the Olympics. The attacks on Ammo’s character continued in the press and were widely known to have been orchestrated by Uday. The criticism eventually stopped but the coach did not forget. Uday and Ammo did clash on a few occasions; one of those came in 1992 in a league title decider between Al-Zawraa and Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.

Ammo was coach of Al-Zawraa and Akram Emmanuel of Al-Jawiya had scored in the eighth minute of the match. Laith Hussein then scored an equaliser that seemed 100 per cent legitimate but was ruled out by the referee, Salah Mohammed Karim.

Ammo then insulted his nemesis in front of 50,000 fans at the Al-Shaab Stadium when he refused to walk up to receive his medal along with the players, as the medals were handed out by Uday at the podium. Uday said on TV that the coach had no morals; when word reached Ammo of these comments, he reportedly said, "Let him be full up in his appetite for medals."  

The coach was sent to prison on the orders of Uday on several occasions, the last coming in 1999 after the coach accused him of fixing a league game. He spent three days in a one-metre by two-metre cell. Uday told the coach that he could not leave the cell and would have to go without food or water.

Deprived of food and the medicine he took daily for his heart condition and diabetes, Ammo, who was 65 at the time, nearly died.

His wife urged him to quit, but each time Ammo sought to retire, Uday forced him to continue. He made his family’s life hell, forcing his wife and his son into exile, and turning his passion for football into a nightmare.

At the turn of the century, while coaching Iraqi second division Salah-Al-Deen of Tikrit, Saddam’s home city, where he was earning a mere 2250 Iraqi dinars ($1.25) a month, Ammo would return after work to his empty home in Hay Al-Zayoona in Baghdad, with his wife living in Canada and his son bringing up his family in France.

Through his ill health, he continued to work as a coach to pay his bills and carry on living. His great love for the game, learnt as a boy, had nearly drained from him. Uday, who had not even been born when Ammo first became a national hero with his goalscoring exploits for the national side, had all but killed his passion for football. 

With his coaching expertise neglected by the ruling football authorities, he turned his efforts to founding his own football school for underprivileged children, which has already seen dozens of their members gain places in the Iraqi junior national sides - a credit to the work of the great man.  

Ammo Baba was one of the greatest Iraqi footballers, if not the greatest Iraqi sportsmen, of all time. It is only when you combine the careers of Bobby Charlton and Alf Ramsey into one that you can grasp the magnitude of what Ammo Baba achieved for his country.

When he was a player he reached the same heights as Charlton did with England and Manchester United, despite not playing at the top level in Europe or a World Cup.

Ammo Baba was considered, at the time of his prime, as good enough to captain the Arab national team and was regarded as one of the best players on the continent. Like he did as a player and captain of Iraq, as a coach he led the national team to countless victories and trophies. 

Ammo Baba, you will never be forgotten.

Hassanin Mubarak