"If they kill me they have killed an Iraqi patriot"

Tim Lezard talks to a soccer-star headteacher who won't be intimidated by daily threats of death

Hassan B Hussein is not a typical international footballer. Rather than living it up on the celebrity circuit, the former striker for the Iraqi national team takes his life in his hands every day, dodging bombs and missiles on his way to the school in Baghdad where he teaches.

"There is danger everywhere. Terrorists attack and target every part of Iraq, killing Iraqi people everywhere, whether we are with them or against them. They don't know and they don't care. They just kill Iraqi people.

"When Saddam fell, the majority of Iraqi people, just like me, began to breathe freedom," he explains. "We were all hopeful to have a better life. No one followed you any more, like they did under Saddam. You were free all the time."

The freedoms tasted briefly by Hassan and his friends and colleagues are now a distant memory, after the waves of attacks by those he describes only as "terrorists".

When Hassan, who started his football career at the Iraq Police Club, one of the country's top soccer teams, retired from the professional game in 1995, he wanted to give something back to society.

"I wanted to be a teacher," he says, "but I was told in order to get my teaching qualification I had to be a member of the Ba'ath Party. I refused because I did not want to work for Saddam.

"When he was in power, life was very difficult - not just for me, but for all Iraqi people. I picked up work in shops, selling electric tools and car parts."

It was only in 2003, after the US/UK invasion, that Hassan was able to fulfil his ambitions. Though the violence intensified, he refused to be cowed and completed his training as a PE teacher. Soon afterwards, he was made headteacher of the Khulafa al-Rashidin intermediate school in Baghdad. It is to this school that he makes the nerve-racking 30-minute daily drive, through some of the most dangerous suburbs of Baghdad. And it is on this route, just ten days before I spoke to Hassan, that his cousin was killed when an explosion rocked his car.

"Of course, I feel frightened. I'm scared - everyone's scared. Once I'm in my car, I don't trust anyone on the roads. I am always on the lookout. I stare at the other drivers and passing pedestrians, scouring other cars and staring at passers-by, looking for signs that things aren't quite what they seem" - looking for the signs that might just save his life.

"I am all the time suspicious," he says, shrugging. "All I can do is to look out and trust that God will help me and save me.

"As soon as I get to school, I ring my wife to let her know I am safe. She is relieved, but only until the evening when I have to get back into my car and drive home again."

The school run is a challenge that all Hassan's staff and pupils face. The children, aged between 12 and 17, show amazing resilience, he tells me, making it to their classrooms almost every day.

"The students are courageous. All the time they are asking me to prepare the playing fields!"

It's a matter of honour that the school stays open. Hassan, who is a member of the Iraqi Teachers' Union, believes he has a responsibility not only to his 500 pupils, but also to wider society. Though depleted by law and starved of resources, the unions offer a rare glimpse of hope amid the wreckage of Iraq. Their leaders have been at the forefront of creating a new democratic and secular civil society and are often targeted because of that.

And teachers, more than most professions, are in the firing line. "If the terrorists know they can disrupt education, if they can prevent pupils learning the lessons of the past, their battle is half won. It is important for Iraq that the schools stay open. We must continue to help education and help our pupils. If we do that, I think our country will be better.

"And what else could I do? I have to continue my work. Education is important for Iraq. If the terrorists try to stop us working, we have to challenge them. We have to stand against them."

Even if continuing working means getting killed?

Without pausing, Hassan replies emphatically: "Yes. Everyone expects to be killed, but if terrorists attack me and kill me, they have killed an Iraqi patriot. If I am killed, I would consider myself a martyr for Iraq."

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State