Stange fears for safety of players
February 17, 2003
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BERLIN -- Iraq national soccer coach Bernd Stange believes Germany's high-speed motorways are more dangerous than anything he encountered while working in Iraq and said after fleeing his adopted country that he hoped an "idiotic" war could be averted.

The former East German coach, who abruptly returned home to Germany from Baghdad at the weekend, said he wanted to get back to Iraq as soon as possible, prayed his players survived a war and wanted to work for peace in the meantime.

Stange, whose controversial appointment in Iraq last year caused further tensions to already strained German-U.S. relations, said he was bitter about leaving and angry about the war preparations that meant all his players being called up to the Iraqi army.

"I don't have any players I can train any more," he said. "I'm disappointed and bitter because everything started off so well. I'm not sure I'll see all my players alive again. The only thing they want is to play football.

"I don't think Iraq is a country that you can drop bombs on," he added, sidestepping a question about working conditions under the rule of President Saddam Hussein.

"Forty-six percent of the population in Iraq is younger than 16 years old. Bombs are going to be dropped on these people?"

Stange also spoke of a "peace plan" -- bringing together Saddam, Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for a meeting in Baghdad with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"At breakfast on Monday a young player told me his greatest wish -- Sharon, Arafat, Schroeder, Chirac and Putin should come to Iraq and together with the president prevent war from coming," Stange wrote in his diary, according to excerpts published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

"Why don't political leaders ever come up with ideas like that?" Stange asked. The German, French and Russian leaders have resisted U.S. efforts in the United Nations Security Council to obtain a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

Stange, 54, said he never felt in danger during his five months in Iraq, which ended abruptly on Friday after the German embassy in Baghdad urged him to leave the country because of the growing threat of war. He has a contract clause allowing him to leave Iraq if a conflict looms.

"It's actually more dangerous to drive a car in Germany," said Stange, whose four-year contract is pointed towards getting Iraq to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.

He said he was on "paid holiday" now. "There's nothing I can do now except wait and fight for peace," he said. "As soon as there are signals from officials (in Berlin and Baghdad) that tensions have relaxed, I'll go back."

Stange said he was not able to say farewell personally to his squad but wrote letters to the players. He was also staying in touch with his assistant coaches and hoped the team would be able to play an Olympic qualifier on April 4 in Baghdad against Vietnam.

"But even if we lose some of the players in the fighting, I'm determined to field 11 players," he said.

Stange, who coached the Communist East German side from 1983 to 1988, had been unemployed for about a year before he agreed to coach Iraq. He faced criticism in Germany for taking the job and especially for posing for a widely published photograph in front of a portrait of Saddam.

"It was naive of Stange to think he could avoid the politics of it all," wrote the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "He has tried with diminishing success to stay out of the political issues."

Relations between Germany and the United States have become increasingly frosty as a result of Germany's strict opposition to war on Iraq, accused by the United States of amassing weapons of mass destruction. Stange's appointment did not help.

"The reality is that there was never any political pressure put upon me from anyone in the leadership," Stange said. "No one asked me to take any political positions for anything.

"But in the last weeks I have dropped my reservations and clearly taken a position with those who are opposed to this idiotic war," Stange said.

He also signalled he had abandoned earlier reluctance to meet top Iraq officials, including Saddam's son Udai who is president of the Iraq football association, as well as Saddam himself.

"I have never regretted being Iraq's national trainer and I'm actually quite proud of it," said Stange. He had not yet met Udai or Saddam. "Naturally I would accept such an invitation. I don't have any inhibitions on that front whatsoever."

He said he had got to know Iraqis as "good mates who are just searching for happiness".

Stange had said it had not been an easy decision to go to Iraq but he had been tired of being out of work and saw the offer as an opportunity to train a national team with a shot of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.

Stange, who said he had made checks with FIFA and the German foreign ministry before taking the assignment, had been out of work since being sacked by Oman after a 10-week stint which had included a 1-0 upset victory over Iraq.

Under Stange, Iraq lost a friendly against Oman 2-1 and drew 2-2 with Bahrain.

"There's no comparison between now and the prima donnas I had to deal with in Oman," he said of his previous job.

Stange had been a big name in football circles in East Germany but struggled to build on that after the Berlin Wall fell and the two Germanys were reunited in 1990.

He coached Hertha Berlin but was fired after evidence surfaced that he had worked as an informant for the East German Stasi security police who tracked and persecuted dissenters to the communist regime.

He said he was proud of what he had accomplished in Iraq.

"It wasn't a mistake and I don't regret a single day," he said. "I feel I was able to give people (there) something. I was able to train more than 100 coaches, brought things forward and developed military-style planning for the 2006 World Cup and the Olympics.

"There was a real soccer buzz in the country and I'm quite proud of that."

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