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BAGHDAD - Sadiq al-Wohali, a 42-year-old soccer coach who spent most of this decade teaching British youngsters the "beautiful game" in London, is on a mission to Iraq to help coaches transform young potential into stardom.
Sporting a black tracksuit and working with a handful of talented pre-teen boys, Wohali sets out dozens of exercises as about 30 coaches from Baghdad's slums, where most of Iraq's soccer talent is found, frantically scribble down notes.
Wohali, who has coached for a week on dusty training grounds next to Iraq's national Sha'ab stadium, said he did not see the capital's violence as an issue big enough to stop him advancing the game in a country with such promising talent.
"To be honest, I was never scared of Saddam's regime so I'm not scared of Iraq today. The security I have seen here is excellent, I've been here for eight days and I have moved around freely and safely," he said.
Only a couple of guards stand at the entrance to the training grounds searching cars coming in.
Wohali, who left Iraq in 1996, said he has focused on teaching coaches who manage pre-teen youths to make sure the children, some of whom have mesmerising individual skill on the ball, begin their quest for stardom with a proper foundation.
So far, he has been impressed.
"I've always said that Iraq is the Brazil of the Middle East. We have beautiful skill in this country, we have treasures walking on the ground that we must develop, not just below the ground in the form of oil," he said. "More focus has to be put on this sport but Iraqi soccer needs organisation that begins at grassroots level."
Iraq's national team shocked the sporting world last July when they won their first Asian Cup in emphatic fashion despite a lack of time to train, poor facilities and violence affecting squad members and their relatives.
The wildly celebrated victory became an inspiration for a country struggling to quell bloodshed and sectarian violence, encouraging youths seeking to emulate their heroes.
Jasim Hasan coaches an Under-15 team in Baghdad's northwestern Shi'ite slum of Shula. He says Wohali's qualities are experience and his effective communication with children.
"The course was very good and he brings good experience with him from England. In Iraq, we are born to play soccer but we need to learn more of the technical side of the game," he said.
The daily four-hour sessions involve children performing dribbles, as well as other physical exercises.
Youngster Hamza Hasan from Sadr City's Under-13s said the new methods were a lot of fun.
"We've really enjoyed the training. He's a good coach and he makes us understand the game more with his encouragement, unlike the coaches here who are aggressive," he said.
Wohali, who holds a Football Association coaching licence and FA certificates, says he will return to England in two weeks and hopes to return again for a more extensive course. - Reuters