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Iraq Surprises Portugal in 4-2 Olympic Victory

Team from war-torn nation defeats medal contender with a dominant second half.

August 13, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

HERAKLION, Greece — That gunfire erupted in Baghdad on Thursday night came as no surprise in that war-torn nation. This time, though, the shots were fired in celebration, not anger.

Iraqis everywhere were delightedly praising their Olympic men's soccer team, which, against all odds, defeated Portugal, 4-2, at Pampeloponnisiako Stadium in Patras to open its tournament in spectacular fashion.

The Portuguese, featuring such talented players as Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo and Fulham midfielder Luis Boa Morte, came into the 16-nation Olympic event as one of the medal favorites, along with Argentina and Italy.

As recently as July 4, Ronaldo and Boa Morte had started for the Portugal team that lost to Greece in the final of the 2004 European Championship.

But Thursday evening they and their teammates were no match for an Iraqi side that shrugged off years of deprivation and bloodshed -- after poor performances, Iraqi players were jailed and tortured by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday -- to record a memorable triumph.

At the final whistle, the players raised their arms and applauded the several hundred flag-waving Iraqi fans, most of them living in Greece, who had come to support them.

"All the countries now know there is something to the Iraqi people -- that people in Iraq have a life, that they can do anything for our country," Hussein Saeed, head of the Iraqi Football Assn., said of the victory.

"We are proud of our players. Tonight they put a smile on the faces of all the people in Iraq."

The victory was a reward for a team that was forced to play its home Olympic qualifying matches outside Iraq because opponents, fearing for their safety, were unwilling to travel to Baghdad.

The players also lost their German coach, Bernd Stange, when fighting in Iraq and the kidnapping of foreigners forced him to abandon his post in the midst of the qualifying campaign against Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

"I never got any direct threats," Stange told Associated Press at the time, "but I was told by German authorities that it was best if I left the country.... The situation there is shocking, and it's amazing that the team qualified for Athens."

Even before Thursday's surprise result, hopes were expressed in Athens that there might be a cessation of the car-bombings and other hostilities in Iraq as long as its Olympic team was playing.

"It is possible," Tiras Odisho, director general of Iraq's National Olympic Committee, said in Athens on Monday. "Iraqis are very sports-minded. When there is an important [soccer] match ... you don't see any fighting in Baghdad until after the match.

"So there might be -- there just might be -- a cease-fire for the Olympic Games."

The soccer players make up the majority of Iraq's Olympic delegation, but one of those attending Thursday night's match was the delegation's lone woman, sprinter Ala Hikmat.

Portugal came in confident of victory. Its coach, Jose Romao, told the website FIFA.com that while he had "very little information" about the Iraqis and knew the two other teams in the group, Costa Rica and Morocco, better, "the bottom line is that I think Portugal has a great chance of making the quarterfinals."

That will be more difficult now.

Portugal took the lead in the 13th minute when Iraqi defender Haidar Jabar accidentally put the ball in his own net while trying to clear it. Iraq tied the score three minutes later when striker Emad Mohammed fired home the rebound of a Younis Mahmoud shot that had rattled the crossbar.

Just before the half-hour mark, the Iraqis took the lead on a goal by Hawar Mulla Mohammed, but the Portuguese pulled even in the dying minutes of the first half when Bosingwa scored.

The second half belonged to Iraq, which regained the lead when Mahmoud beat Portuguese goalkeeper Moreira in the 56th minute, five minutes after Portugal was reduced to 10 men by the ejection of Boa Morte for kicking Bassim Abbas. Salih Sadir secured the victory with a goal in injury time.

The upset was a tribute to former Iraqi international Adnan Hamed, who took charge of the team when Stange left.

"Iraq has a bright future before it," Hamed told FIFA.com at that time. "I'm sure we'll do well in the Olympics."

On Thursday night, Hamed's words appeared prophetic, just as his postgame comments rang all too true.

"This victory will be received with happiness by my people, who have suffered through much," he said.

In other men's soccer results Thursday night, Costa Rica and Morocco tied, 0-0, in Heraklion, meaning that Iraq has first place in the group; Paraguay edged Japan, 4-3, in Thessaloniki, and Italy salvaged a 2-2 tie with Ghana in Volos on a late goal by Alberto Gilardino.

Times staff writer Alan Abrahamson contributed to this report.

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