Saturday, August 21, 2004
Iraqi soccer team reaches semifinals
IRAKLION, Greece -- Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad couldn't
complete more than a few sentences without his cell phone ringing.
His team is one step away from an improbable trip to the medal
podium, and he was more than happy to spread the word to a country
in dire need of good news.
Mohammed Emad curls in the game-winner to send Iraq on to the semis.
"We have spoken to our families already about this victory,"
Hamad said after Saturday's 1-0 quarterfinal win over Australia.
"They're all very happy. Everybody is out in the streets,
The victory put the war-torn nation in position to compete for
only the second Olympic medal in its history. Iraq will play
Paraguay, which defeated South Korea 3-2, in the semifinals in
Thessaloniki on Tuesday.
In Baghdad, a stream of red tracer bullets cut through the night
sky amid a hail of celebratory gunfire. Fans who had watched the
game in cafes and hotels spilled out and drove through the streets
with national flags fluttering from their cars and screaming "God
"This is an incredible event," 35-year-old Munther Elias said
as he and his brothers danced and fired off guns. "I couldn't
imagine that Iraq is going to reach the semifinals. I ask them to
keep it up until the end."
Even a loss in the semis would put the Iraqis in the bronze
medal game, where they could become the first athletes from their
country to win a medal since Abdul Wahid Aziz's weightlifting
bronze in Rome in 1960.
"There have been many sacrifices made for this match tonight.
... Our families are unhappy and very sad," Hamad said through an
interpreter. "They are all surrounded by difficult conditions and
tough situations in our country. And we are trying to offer the
best we can with a little happiness for our people."
One person definitely not on Hamad's speed dial was President
Bush, who has stirred some anger among the Iraqi coach and players
for using Iraq's flag during a reference to the Olympics in a
commercial for his re-election campaign. The U.S. Olympic Committee
has also raised concern about the ad's use of the games for a
Asked about the commercial, Hamad said: "Bush helps to destroy
our country. After a year and a half, we have passed into a very
bad situation. ... We'll never believe Bush can be with us."
In the other quarterfinal games, Argentina defeated Costa Rica
4-0 and Italy beat Mali 1-0. Argentina and Italy will play Tuesday
The only goal of the game came on Emad Mohammed's 12-yard
bicycle kick in the 64th minute, but it was more than enough to
satisfy more than 1,000 chanting, flag-waving Iraqi supporters at
Pankrito Stadium on the island of Crete.
The fact that the Iraqis even qualified for the Athens Games was
a remarkable achievement. They clinched a berth in May, just three
months after the country was reinstated by the International
Olympic Committee following a nine-month absence. The Iraqi Olympic
Committee was previously run by Saddam Hussein's son, Odai, who
tortured players when they fell out of favor.
Two months after qualifying, the team's German coach, Bernd
Stange, resigned because of safety reasons and was replaced by his
assistant and former Iraqi player Hamad. The team could not play
any home games because of the war and had virtually no funding.
"Things were confusing for us," Mohammed said. "We came here
to play, to participate in the Olympic Games, but it's quite
difficult to have our minds only on the game."
The goal came on a corner kick. Mahdi Karim sacrificed his body
to head the ball to Mohammed, who flipped himself upside down to
put his shot inside the right post. Karim was injured on the play
and lay on the field for a couple of minutes, but he returned to
The Australians still had better scoring chances throughout the
match, even though they played without three regular starters.
Defender Craig Moore and midfielders Ahmad Elrich and Tim Cahill
were suspended after receiving two yellow cards in the first round.
Elrich and Cahill had accounted for three of Australia's six
Australia actually put the ball in the net in the 48th minute
when Anthony Danze knocked in a rebound after two excellent saves
by goalkeeper Nour Sabri, but the play was ruled offsides. Sabri
then made a leaping save on John Aloisi's header in the 59th, and
Australia's Luke Wilkshire hit the crossbar in the 66th.
Asked if it was any consolation losing to a team with such a
remarkable story, Australia coach Frank Farina said: "Definitely
"We're very dissatisfied we didn't win the game," Farina said.
"The beginning of the second half, if it was a boxing match, it
would have been stopped. But we committed the biggest error in not
finishing the chances that we had."
Two more Iraqi victories would mean a gold medal and a promised
$25,000 reward for each player from the Iraqi Olympic Committee.
The committee had conceded it may need sponsors to come through
with the cash, considering there are 18 players on the roster.
"If we do reach this result," Hamad said, "it will be a
source of great happiness for our people."