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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 August, 2004, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Iraqi footballers set for historic match

By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online in Athens

Iraq's footballers carry the dreams of a war-torn nation on Tuesday night as their startling run in the Olympic football tournament sees them play Paraguay in the semi-final.
Mohammed Hawar Mulla of Iraq celebrates scoring against Costa Rica
Iraqi players have been critical of President Bush for using them in campaign ads

Even qualifying for the tournament was a victory for a team with little money and a shortage of practice equipment, from a country in the grip of violence.

But every win so far has been hailed as a symbolic triumph over adversity and an inspiration to those back home.

In an open letter to the team, interim prime minister Iyad Allawi said they had hoisted the Iraqi flag high.

Coach Adnan Hamad insists his players will be under no pressure in Greece's second city, Thessaloniki.

"We have been carrying the dreams of a nation. That puts us in an extremely difficult position," he told reporters.

"But everyone in Iraq is happy now. Our achievements can make them forget a little about their problems."

Scenes of jubilation in Baghdad and across the country greeted the team's 1-0 victory over Australia in the last round.

Tracer fire was reportedly arcing across the capital's skyline - for once in jubilation rather than aggression.


For those watching in Iraq, one of the main concerns will be to find a home or cafe with a private generator at which to watch the game.

This is my third Olympics but it is almost like our first. For the first time we have a team that is coming to the Olympics because they are the best in their country and who can compete fairly, without fear
Tiras Odishow
Iraqi Olympic official

Power cuts are routine and no one wants to miss a second of one of the biggest sporting occasions in the country's history.

Even if Iraq was to lose, the team would still have the chance of a bronze medal in a play-off for third place. A win would guarantee silver or gold and the country's greatest Olympic triumph.

Iraq has only won a single medal at the Olympics since joining the Games in 1948. Weightlifter Aziz Abdul Wahid took a bronze at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

But meanwhile, politics off the pitch are intruding on the party.


Coach Hamad has again criticised a US television campaign for the re-election of George Bush which features the Iraqi flag.

The commercial shows the flags of Iraq and Afghanistan with a narration claiming that there were two more free nations at the Olympics and two fewer terrorist regimes.

Iraqi football fans in Baghdad
Iraqi football fans in Baghdad celebrate a goal against Portugal.
Hamad said you could not speak about a team which represents freedom because Iraq was not free, it was occupied by US forces and in the grip of violence.

But under Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, athletes were often abused and tortured if they performed badly in the Olympics.

Dr Tiras Odishow, a senior official in the Iraqi delegation told BBC News Online:

"This is my third Olympics but it is almost like our first. For the first time we have a team that is coming to the Olympics because they are the best in their country and who can compete fairly, without fear."

In the run-up to the Games, there was a stark reminder of the problems the country still faces, when Iraq's Olympic chief Ahmed al-Samarrai narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

However, for now coaches, spectators and their leaders alike are hoping the team can lift the nation.

In his letter to the squad, Mr Allawi said: "You have brought a smile to every Iraqi home, and you have hoisted the Iraqi flag high.

"I salute you and all Iraq salutes you. The palm groves, the marshes, the mountains, the Tigris and the Euphrates salute you."


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