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ATHENS 2004

Surprises Keep Coming for Iraqi Men in Soccer

Three days after stunning Portugal, they defeat Costa Rica, 2-0, to ensure a berth in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament.

August 16, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — At the final whistle, bedlam.

Delirious Iraqi fans stormed over the railings and onto the Karaiskaki Stadium field Sunday night, celebrating without restraint another improbable soccer victory, this time a 2-0 triumph over Costa Rica.

Two goals in a devastating five-minute spell in the second half -- the first on crisp volley by Mulla Mohammed Hawar and the second on a diving header by Karim Mahdi -- qualified Iraq for the quarterfinals of the Olympic men's soccer tournament.

For a few seconds, at least, the war was forgotten, the misery and bloodshed pushed aside by the sheer joy in athletic achievement.

Fans, some with painted faces, some stripped to the waist, all pursued in vain by security personnel, sprinted across the field to hug and kiss the victorious players. One gently placed an Iraqi flag at the center of the field.

And then, a short while later, reality again.

Speaking to reporters, Mohammed Hussein, president of the Iraqi soccer federation, had this to say, speaking through an interpreter:

"We call upon all Iraqis to respect this victory and to respect the [Olympic] tournament and to use this as a platform to perhaps cease fire and to try and be peaceful about what they're doing at the moment and to come back from the brink."

Hussein said an open letter had been written to the people of Iraq asking them "to stop the fighting, to stop the blood, because now we are representing them and we are happy that we put a smile on [the faces of] our people."

Adnan Hamad Majeed, the coach who masterminded back-to-back victories over Portugal, which came into the Olympics as one of the favorites to win a medal, on Thursday and Costa Rica, on Sunday said he well realizes that they have meaning beyond the sporting one.

"We're delighted with the victories because we recognize what they mean to our people," he said. "We recognize the importance of football to every Iraqi. It's their pride and joy. We are confident that this will certainly delight them and unite them and hopefully we will do more for them during this tournament and beyond."

Based on the team's performance Sunday night, Iraq -- which surprised many by qualifying for the Olympics -- could well reach the medal round.

It played fluid attacking soccer, moving the ball around with ease and accuracy and keeping Costa Rica's defense constantly on edge.

That said, it was the Ticos who could have taken the lead.

Midfielder Junior Diaz, Costa Rica's most influential player, spotted Iraqi goalkeeper Sabri Nour well off his line in the 34th minute and chipped a shot over his head and toward the unguarded net.

The ball bounced off the top of the crossbar.

In the second half, Costa Rica did put the ball in the net. A free kick by Jose Luis Lopez was punched out by Nour, but the ball rebounded off one of three onrushing Costa Rica players and into the net.

The goal was disallowed on an offside call that Costa Rica Coach Rodrigo Kenton later said was inexplicable, "but that's football."

Iraq struck in the 67th minute when the Tico defense failed to properly clear the third of three corner kicks in a row and Hawar drove home the ball with a well-struck volley.

In the 72nd minute, Sadir Salih and Hawar combined to again unlock Costa Rica's defense, with Mahdi flinging himself at Hawar's cross and scoring on a header to cap the move.

Asked whether Iraq's players are playing with more style, creativity and freedom now that they no longer live under fear of imprisonment or torture if they fail, Majeed demurred.

"The players tend to focus on their game at the moment," the coach said. "Rather than dwelling in the past, they're trying to focus on the possibilities they have ahead of them. Our job is also to help them represent their country the best way they can and to help rebuild their country to what it can be."

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