Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Olympic soccer hails new heroes

AP , THESSALONIKI, GREECE

Iraq's players on Saturday pose for photographs prior to the start of their quarterfinal match against Australia in Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete.

PHOTO: AP

It was as if the location was perfectly named for Olympic soccer's new heroes.

For Iraklion read the Iraq lions.

After Nigeria's surprise triumph at the 1996 Olympics and Cameroon's unexpected victory at Sydney 2000, here's a team of outsiders with an even more amazing story.

Unable to play any games on home turf because of the daily violent conflict back in their own country, Iraq's beleaguered soccer players beat Australia 1-0 on Saturday to reach the Olympic semifinal.

That means they're just a step away from a medal, although they would have to beat one of two soccer powerhouses, Argentina and Italy, to win the gold.

Imagine that.

"We have spoken to our families already about this victory," Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad said after Emad Mohammed scored the only goal of the game against Australia. "They're all very happy. Everybody is out in the streets, ecstatic.

"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."

In tomorrow's semifinal at Thessaloniki, Iraq faces Paraguay, which edged South Korea 3-2. Argentina crushed Costa Rica 4-0 with Boca Juniors striker Carlos Tevez scoring three while Italy needed a header from defender Cesare Bovo four minutes from the end of extra time to edge Mali and end Africa's dream of its own Olympic soccer hat-trick.

A two-time runner up, Argentina has never won the Olympic title while Italy's only triumph was at Berlin in 1936. They are so desperate for the gold they don't have time to reflect on Iraq's startling performance in reaching the last four.

A year ago, Iraq's soccer federation had been disbanded, the team had no facilities and no cash, and the nation's Olympic status had been suspended by the International Olympic Committee.

Reinstated by the IOC in February, Iraq played catchup to get its athletes to Greece and its soccer players qualified, not only for the Olympics but also for the Asian Cup in China.

They got there under the guidance of inspirational German coach Bernd Stange. But he was forced to quit three months ago facing death threats and was replaced by Adnan Hamad.

Before watching Saturday's game, FIFA president Sepp Blatter promised to help rebuild the structure of soccer in Iraq. He said FIFA would help build a new training center for the Iraqi national team having already earmarked US$400,000 to rebuild the Iraqi soccer federation's headquarters, which was destroyed during the war.

Blatter also defended his support for Iraqi soccer federation president Hussain Saeed Mohamed, who held a lower position in the federation under deposed president Saddam Hussein.

"We helped him to take the leadership of the federation despite an opposition inside the country," Blatter said. "He was a footballer. He is a footballer. We trust him. And we forget what has happened with the politics in Iraq. We are going forward," he said.

"Football can be one of the tools for peace, not only in his country but all around the world."

Iraq faces a Paraguay team which knocked out Brazil in the South American qualifying round. Fredy Bareiro took his scoring tally to three in two games as he hit two against the Koreans in Thessaloniki. The South Americans went 3-0 up before the Koreans hit back with two strikes by Lee Shun-hoo, one a penalty.

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