Hussein Saeed Mohammed is a lucky Iraqi - he lived to tell about a clash with Uday, one of the brutal sons of deposed leader Saddam Hussein. Uday, 39, and his brother Qusay, 37, died in a firefight with 200 US airborne troops on Tuesday. Saeed's status as Iraq's pre-eminent soccer hero, and an eminent sportsman, may have saved him from the vengeful son of the dictator. Their argument came during the 2001 World Cup qualifying competition, after Uday sacked the Iraqi team's coach, Adnan Hamd, and replaced him with Croatian Rudolf Belin. Saeed warned the move would condemn Iraq to defeat with the highly significant visit of Iran to Baghdad. 'He told me to go home, you are not with the federation any more,' Saeed said. 'But after we lost the match he told me, 'you were right'.' As the building blocks of Iraqi society slowly move back into place after the war, one small but sure sign that life in the strife-torn country may be changing for the better is the re-emergence of sport. This weekend Iraq fields a side in international competition for the first time since the invasion by the United States and Britain when they enter an indoor team in the Asian Futsal Championship in the Iranian capital Tehran. 'It means life. It's a new beginning,' declares Saeed. 'It means that Iraq is still alive, that still we work, although we work under difficult conditions. We have to begin. When football, and sport, begins it is a sign that life is becoming normal.' Normality in Iraq is, like the truth, an elusive beast. If the Americans were to produce a replica of their now-infamous pack of cards for Iraq's sporting notables, former footballer Saeed would be one of the aces. Since scoring the last minute winner against Iran that earned his country the 1977 Asian Under-19 Championship in Tehran, he has been a folk hero. When he retired from international football in 1990 he was revered as a member of the 1986 World Cup finals squad and was his country's most capped player with over 100 games under his belt. But he is also a former member of Mr Hussein's Ba'ath Party. And he is the man who has replaced the notorious torturer Uday as president of the Iraqi Football Association (FA). Since 1990, he has been at different times a member, a vice-president and the general secretary of the Iraqi FA and the general secretary of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, all of which were ruled over with an iron fist by Saddam's oldest son. Now, despite reservations from the United States, he is heading the interim committee leading the restoration of Iraq's national sport. Not that he is a popular choice with the occupying forces or those jockeying for position in the post-Saddam era. Sharar Haidar, who flew back to Iraq as head of the Free Iraqi Olympic Group, has criticised both Saeed and his former teammate and fellow legend Ahmed Radhi for their links with the old regime. Ahmed Radhi and Raad Hamoudi, an Iraqi international goalkeeper in the 1970s and 80s, have also become involved in the struggle for power. Saeed has survived in part because of the support of football's international governing body FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, and the fact that anyone involved in sport had to deal with Uday, the president - among other things - of the National Olympic Committee. 'It was normal,' he explained. 'He was the son of the president. But we were all elected. 'From 1996 until now all the sports federations, the National Olympic Committee, all the directors of the clubs were elected,' he said. Having links with Uday or being a Ba'ath Party member should not be seen as necessarily being a part of the regime. As one Iraqi football writer put it, 'people have been saying he was close to Uday, but who wasn't? In Iraq, to get anywhere, you had to be a Ba'ath Party member.' The US has insisted that the Iraqi FA cannot appoint any former party members from now on, which effectively means they cannot appoint anyone with any experience of running sport in Iraq. Normality was a weird concept in Mr Hussein's Iraq. The national team, it is now widely accepted, was beaten and imprisoned in 1997 for failing to qualify for the World Cup. But Saeed is not keen to rake over old coals - 'It is not good to talk about the past' - and in his position, unless you had seen Mr Hussein's head on a pole, you wouldn't either. The torturing of failed athletes was the norm in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985, Uday took over the Al Rasheed club and went about 'persuading' all of the country's top players to join. Ahmed Radhi, who at that time was just 18, was beaten until he agreed to join. He played for them for seven years. Saeed, perhaps because of his fame, was the only player not to make the move and yet he, like every other leading football figure, was punished by Uday. Most Iraqis seem to regard these footballers as victims of the regime to the same extent that the Americans view them as part of it. Saeed says that Uday turned his back on sport towards the end of the 1990s. At that time, Uday was injured in an assassination attempt, oversaw beatings of national team members, and had his bodyguards open fire on a football crowd that foolishly dared to jeer him. 'While he was chairman no-one could contact him,' said his replacement at the Iraqi FA. 'Over the last seven years, he didn't give any care or attention to sport or football. For two years, we didn't have a single meeting with him. He stopped supporting sport.' When pushed, Saeed conceded this was not entirely true. While it seems that the punishment of athletes might have become less routine in recent years, there is the other side of the coin, as Saeed said: 'It was not always punishment.' The teenagers who won the 2000 AFC Youth Under-19 Championship, also in Tehran, were rewarded handsomely with 5 million dinar (HK$130 million) each. Just as routinely as punishments were handed out, cars and cash were showered on those who brought honour to the regime. The future for Iraqi football is less than certain. Dictators do have the ability to focus resources on sporting success. The rebuilding process has already begun, but the American invasion destroyed much of Iraq's sporting infrastructure, including the National Olympic Committee's headquarters where all the individual sports associations were based. Fortunately, the Iraqi football family reported no casualties among its staff, coaches or players. 'I think football begins from zero. Everything was damaged,'' said Saeed. 'Our headquarters was bombed. All our things in storage were stolen. The first thing we had to do is create a temporary HQ and get equipment. Also, we had to get three of the club stadiums ready so we could prepare our national and Olympic teams. Our money, our accounts, are frozen. 'We are in a very critical period now. We have to wait for the government to be re-established before we can pay salaries. 'I've used my own money to buy equipment, shirts and pay the salaries of the players and coaches, and also our federation's officials,' he said. The rebuilding starts with a new headquarters that is expected to cost close to US$250,000. FIFA's Goal Project is contributing more than half that sum. The national and Olympic teams are both in camp in Kurdistan, in the north of the country, where both security and climate are more favourable as they prepare for the Asian Cup and Olympic qualifying matches in September and October. Meanwhile, Iraq hopes to complete the FA Cup, which stalled at the semi-final stage, next month. The amazing thing is that despite the problems Iraq has faced over the past 20 years, and particularly since the 1991 Gulf war, they have remained a force in Asian football. Their national team sits perhaps in the second tier of Asian nations, behind the superpowers of Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is despite a shortage of equipment, coaching material, quality opposition for their warm-up matches and a road journey of at least 12 hours just to get out of the country. Saeed said: 'It has been difficult because of the wars and the embargoes. The economy, society, every branch of life was affected. We all suffered. I think the future will be good for Iraq. 'Although there are many difficulties, the Iraqi people love sport, and football is the most popular. 'We have good players ... We just need time to return to the top of the Asian game.' 'The Iraqi people love sport, and football is the most popular. We just need time to return to the top of the Asian game'