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Iraqi Football Team Tries to Make Best of Olympic Opportunity - 2004-08-15

An Iraqi football team that barely qualified for the Olympics is trying to make the best of its opportunity.

To allow enough rest between all the games scheduled here, football is the one sport that began before the opening ceremonies.

And it was a huge beginning for the Iraqi football players last Thursday as they upset Portugal, 4-2. Iraq had clinched an Olympic football berth only three months after the nation was reinstated by the International Olympic Committee.

The team is here with seven other athletes in six sports - one each in swimming, weightlifting, boxing, judo and taekwondo, and two in athletics.

Ahmed Al Samurai, President of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, said at a news conference here that given the state of the country, it's a thrill to be in Athens. "We are lucky [our] dreams now [have come] true. It's not only for me (but) for the Iraqi athletes who are looking all the time to come with the rest of the Olympic movement and the rest of the civilized world and the sports world," he said. "And we should thank and be grateful for all those people and nations who helped the Iraqi people to let their dreams come true."

An estimated 2,500 Iraqi fans attended their football team's 4-2 win over Portugal, and they were extremely vocal during and after the improbable victory.

However, Tiras Odisho Anwaya, Director General of the Iraq Olympic Committee, said the mentality of the Iraqi football players has changed since the fall of Saddam Hussein. "We are playing without any fear. You know before, if you made a mistake or lose, you got punished. Now a player can make a decision," he said. "He can play the way he wants to. He can shoot at the goal and miss without being afraid. So this is one of the reasons why the performance in soccer and in other athletics is becoming very good."

Hussein Saeed Mohammad, President of the Iraqi Football Association, said it is important for the players to perform well here. "Our players do all the best to give the smile for our people in Iraq. You know there's much fighting in Iraq, and we have a good chance for peace now. And our team can put a smile on our people and show the world that football is the school of life," he said.

The Iraqi players formed a human chain after their emotional victory against Portugal, considered a gold-medal contender. And they walked hand-in-hand off the field while their fans waved the country's red, white and green flags and chanted victory salutes.

Iraq has won only one Olympic medal since it began competing in the Olympics in 1948. It would be a dream come true if the war-torn nation could win a medal here.

The Iraqi football team is in Group D with Costa Rica and Morocco, which played to a draw in their opening match. Iraq topped Costa Rica 2-0 Sunday and plays Morocco on Wednesday. The top two teams advance to the quarterfinals.