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Football Success in Athens Cheers Iraqis at Home - 2004-08-23


Iraqis are marveling at their football team's good fortune at the Athens Olympics. The team won Saturday's quarterfinal against Australia, and is now just two games away from a possible medal. As VOA's Challiss McDonough reports from Baghdad, the unexpected success in Athens is lifting Iraqi spirits at an otherwise bleak time.

In a dusty, neglected neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad, three generations of one family are watching Iraq play Australia in Saturday's Olympic football quarterfinal. There is tremendous excitement and anxiety in the room. Everyone has been looking forward to this for days. The Iraqi team has been doing better than anybody predicted, and winning this match will put them in the running for a medal.

Less than three minutes into the game, however, the reality of day-to-day life in the Iraqi capital intrudes. The lights go out. And so does the TV.

Family members scramble outside to get the generator going.

The head of the household, Abu Mohammed, says they had the generator repaired just for tonight's game. As the family sits in the dark, he says, "I'll kill myself, if it doesn't work!"

After a few minutes, the generator rumbles to life and the lights flicker on. Soon, they are all again watching anxiously, as the Iraqi and Australian players try to head the ball near the Iraqi goal.

They worry that the Australians have the advantage, because they are taller than the Iraqis and in better shape.

The truth is that the Iraqis have been underdogs in every match they have played in Athens. The team's Olympic eligibility was only recently reinstated. They are still unable to play at home because of violence. And three months ago, their revered German coach quit, after receiving death threats.

And yet, somehow, they keep on winning.

The Iraqi football team is used to playing under adversity. Watching his team hold its own against the bigger, stronger Australians, Abu Mohammed recalls the old days, when Saddam Hussein's son Uday Hussein controlled Iraqi sport, often overruling the coach and choosing players himself.

"Back then, Uday suppressed them and stressed them, and did not give them a chance to play freely like this," he says. "Now, they know nobody will punish them after the game."

Abu Mohammed says players used to be afraid to take penalty kicks out of fear that Uday would beat or torture them, if they failed to score. He beams as he notes that the Iraqis are playing without fear now, and he thinks it has lifted their game.

President Bush used footage of the Iraqi football team in a campaign ad recently. The move angered many of the players, who do not want their success used to win votes for the American leader. Team managers have tried to downplay the controversy, but television commentators during the quarterfinal made jokes about it, much to the amusement of Abu Mohammed's family.

In the end, Iraq beats Australia 1-0, thanks to a brilliant cartwheeling goal by Emad Mohammed. Several men in the family grab their guns and run outside for the traditional Iraqi celebration of firing in the air.

Soccer is a national obsession in Iraq. Baghdad drivers might grumble about the vast number of streets that have been blocked off for security reasons, snarling traffic. But kids have made the best of the abandoned roadways, and turned many of them into improvised football fields.

Every evening, a group of teenagers plays football in a parking lot near Baghdad University, using old oil cans to mark the goal posts. Less than 50 meters away, police have set up a roadblock and are checking cars for weapons or explosives.

But the players hardly even notice. Sixteen-year-old Sevan Baho devotes his full attention to the game.

"When I play soccer, I forget everything else, and just enjoy myself," he says.

He is wearing the bright red jersey of the British team, Arsenal. Some of his friends wear the colors of other European teams, and a few have shin-pads and real football shoes. But others play in street clothes, and one boy is barefoot. It does not seem to diminish his joy in the game.

After all, playing football barefoot is hardly the biggest challenge in most Iraqis' lives. They are dealing with power cuts, a bad water supply, car bombings and the constant threat of getting caught in the crossfire between insurgents and American troops. This nightly football match is a chance to escape all of that, at least for a few hours.

Back at Abu Mohammed's house, his 18-year-old son Ammar waves his left arm, which is heavily bandaged. He says he broke it playing football.

"I think [beating Australia] surprised everyone," Ammar says. "Nobody expected Iraq to rise to this level. I think this victory will unite Sunnis and Shias, Kurds and Arabs. I hope it will unify all Iraqis."

If nothing else, the football team's success is giving Iraqis a little bit of hope that things will not always be so bleak.

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