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Thursday, August 12, 2004
Updated: August 13, 10:51 AM ET
Iraq celebrates 'victory for freedom'

By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com

PATRAS, Greece -- One by one they stretched across the midfield grass, holding hands and a nation's heart. They started walking toward the sweet sound of the screaming Iraqi fans.

How they loved that chant tumbling down into the stadium, how they loved the way those 700 fans twisted the words that were once sweet nothings to Saddam Hussein's ears.

"By our souls and blood, we are giving life to you, Saddam," they once barked in Baghdad but no more. Never again. They could hear something else marching out of the most important victory in the history of Iraqi sports. Toward the delirious Iraqis dancing in the night three hours northwest of Athens, and just beyond the wildest dreams of the world's most persecuted athletes.

I never have to go to another soccer game in Iraq and see Saddam's picture all around the stadium.
Iraqi student Shorsh Abdullah

After the Iraqis had defeated gold-medal contender Portugal 4-2 in the first round of Group D, after two players had been carried off on stretchers and the man responsible for the game-winning goal had blood gushing from a cut above his eye until they slapped that big bandage on it, this team could've stood in the middle of Pampeloponnisiako Stadium and listened to that chant all night long.

"By our souls and blood," they screamed in a native language, "we are giving life to you, Iraq."

"I never have to go to another soccer game in Iraq and see Saddam's picture all around the stadium," said Shorsh Abdullah, a 24-year-old Iraqi living in Greece as a student. He couldn't believe his eyes. His mother and father were back in Baghdad and the thought of the joy this brought everyone back there moved him beyond words.

"This was a victory for freedom," Abdullah finally said before returning to the flood of Iraqi bodies dancing and singing and hugging all the way out of the stadium. They hadn't just won a soccer game, but beat a gold-medal contender, "the best team in Europe," the Iraqi Olympic team leader declared.

Maybe there have been bigger upsets in Olympic history, but there have been few as important as this one. As much as anything, Iraqi athletes are symbols of survival for a beleaguered nation. For them, the consequences of winning and losing were the most grave on the planet. The Iraqi athletes under Uday Hussein, minister of sport for his father Saddam's dictatorship, had been brutalized beyond belief. Nowhere did losing have the consequences they did in Iraq. Imagine those journeys back to Baghdad after losses, when Iraqi athletes had to consider the horrors awaiting them in the twisted mind of Uday.

Abbas Bassim
Portugal's Hugo Almeida (left) fights for a high ball with Iraq's Abbas Bassim (center) and Haidar Abdul Razzaq.

When teams lost and players made mistakes, they could expect to pay a price of pain and suffering through the most unthinkable of tortures. They were beaten and burned with cigarettes and shocked with cattle prodders and sliced with razors digging into flesh. They were dragged through the streets bare-backed and rolled in sand to infect the bloody wounds. They were thrown into prison cells and raped.

Uday always figured: If the rest of society sees our regime doing this to great and popular athletes, ordinary Iraqis will ask themselves; What chance would I have stepping out of line?

After all that, they were somehow still standing on Thursday night in Greece, still standing a world away from the horrors of Hussein's holy hell.

"I think now everyone in Iraq can forget the problems," Iraq's coach Adnan Hamad said.

For one magnificent night anyway, they lost themselves in a victory to connect a fractured country in a common cause. To begin the week, the Australian Air Force had lifted them out of Baghdad, carrying them to Athens and the welcoming arms of the Olympic Village. They brought 25 Olympic athletes to the Games, the rest ceremonial choices in sports like boxing, wrestling and weightlifting. They were awarded spots in the Games out of the generosity of the International Olympic Committee, the proper humanitarian response.

Nobody gave the Iraqis a spot in the soccer tournament. They earned their way into the Olympics, even after training had been disrupted for over a year, even after the pro league had been suspended in Iraq, and players would miss national team practices because of roads closing amid the bombs and gunfire. Against all odds, they celebrated a most improbable victory, in a most improbable place: Iraq had returned to the Olympics with an unforgettable victory.

When it was over, Iraqi players held hands across the field and started walking toward those screaming countrymen in the stands, toward the sound of those most beautiful words they were chanting into a dark Greek night.

"By our souls and blood, we are giving life to you, Iraq."

They had waited a long, long time to change that one word at the end, at the core of it all.

And they would yell it over and over and over.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.