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Iraq soccer team rebuilding in Germany after war
Updated: 2003-08-28 10:35

Iraq's soccer squad arrived in Germany on Wednesday for an 18-day training camp designed to rebuild the team's fitness and morale after months of violence at home.

Led by their German coach Bernd Stange, 21 Iraq players and a dozen team officials landed at Munich after a two-day journey from Baghdad via Damascus and Zurich.

They will stay in the resort town of Bad Woerishofen in the foothills of the Alps, using training facilities built for German professional clubs and will play exhibition matches against German sides over the next three weeks.

"Im delighted to be in Germany and able to train with the players under excellent conditions," a beaming Stange said.

"The team haven't really been able to play football properly for the last six months," he added. "The stadiums and facilities were damaged in the war. They haven't been able to play on real grass for months."

Stange, who signed a controversial four-year contract to coach Iraq last year, left Iraq just before the US-led war began in March. He returned to Baghdad in June to find his offices destroyed, his stadium damaged by bombs and tanks parked on the pitches.

"We are all glad to be able to put the hell in Baghdad behind us for a while," said Stange, whose team were ranked fifth in Asia before the war.

"We're happy to forget about all the problems in Iraq for a while."

He said his players, all of whom were pressed into military service during the war, had suffered from poor nutrition and a shortage of drinking water. There were no casualties.

His appointment last year put further strains on US-German relations, already damaged by the German government's position to war in Iraq. It also sparked criticism from German football leaders, who argued he was being used by Saddam Hussein.

But Stange, who coached Communist East Germany from 1983 to 1988 before moving to Hertha Berlin, Perth Glory in Australia and Oman, rejected charges he was indirectly supporting the regime.

He was, he said, merely a football coach happy to have a job again after a spell of unemployment.

"Football is about peace," he said in Munich. "Its a game that brings the people of the world together."

The German football association donated the 17,000 euros ($18,530) for the Iraq squad's travel. The 50,000 euros cost of accommodation and equipment will be financed through sponsors and revenue from exhibition matches, German officials said.

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