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ATHENS 2004

Iraq Continues Hopeful Trend

Despite a 2-1 loss to Morocco, the team has captured the imagination of its fans.

August 19, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — They have kicked their way from sympathetic charity case to serious contender in these Olympics, a Cinderella in the world's most popular sport, soccer. And everywhere it goes, the Iraqi team is followed by a boisterous fan club eager to show that Iraqis can do something other than fight wars.

Even before a 2-1 loss to Morocco on Wednesday night, Iraq had earned a berth in the quarterfinals by stunning tournament favorite Portugal and then defeating Costa Rica. It finished at the top of Group D with six points. Iraq will play Australia in Heraklion in a quarterfinal game Saturday.

This from a team that wasn't supposed to be here, much less do well.

Iraqis from Denmark to Baghdad have descended on Athens and joined rank with thousands of their countrymen who live in Greece. The fans drape themselves in the red, white and black Iraqi flag as if it were a Superman cape, riotously rush the field after goals and parade unabashedly through town in T-shirts advertising "Iraq."

On Wednesday, Iraqi businessman Shakir Juboori led a caravan of seven buses and innumerable private cars on the four-hour trek from Athens to Patras, where the Morocco game was played. He said he had distributed 1,800 tickets to Iraqis.

"These matches bring all Iraqi people together -- Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Christian -- all together, all on the same bench, all chanting for Iraq," he said as he set off. "Football has succeeded in doing what the entire Iraqi government and [U.S. occupation authority] failed to do."

For Iraqis, the soccer games are an important psychological diversion for a war-rattled people. And they may help in the shaping of a new Iraq.

Winning in Athens -- just appearing here, in fact -- is a small step in the beleaguered country's efforts to emerge from isolation and prove itself.

Winning is about giving Iraq something to smile about, delegation official Hussein Saeed said. (The players also have something to smile about: Saeed said they receive $1,000 bonuses based on their performance.) At the same time, the Iraqis can never quite get past the image of being a U.S. project. The U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. State Department, along with a host of other international donors, have paid to train, outfit and transport the Iraqi delegation. The joke circulating here is that at least the U.S. invasion served for something: forming good athletes.

That, however, wouldn't explain why Iraq's promising swimmer Mohammed Sabih Abbas emerged from the 100-meter freestyle the other day and called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

In addition to the visiting fans, resident Iraqis were following Wednesday's match live on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television network.

Greece -- the European Union country closest to the Middle East -- is home to several thousand Iraqis who fled their native country to escape war or the regime of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. Many work in shipping or construction and speak Greek well; they are numerous enough to have been able to field an informal 16-team soccer league.

Tucked behind a Greek Orthodox church in the suburban Aigaleo neighborhood, coffee bars were packed Wednesday night with Iraqi men glued to small TV sets.

"This is really good for Iraq and will change lots of opinions about Iraq," said bartender Johnny Doma at the Babel Cafe as he popped the caps on beers and sodas and sent them out to the crowd along with sandwiches and plates of folded pita.

Doma left the northern Iraqi city of Mosul five years ago and said the games have energized his clientele. Men sat at wooden tables in the smoky cafe, under fluorescent lights and ceiling fans, and spilled out the door and into the street, where they strained to see the game through the windows.

The fans said the hardships that the Iraqi team had to overcome should earn it respect throughout the world, regardless of who footed the bills.

Soccer had a proud history in Iraq until Hussein's sadistic son Uday took over. He tortured players who didn't live up to his expectations, including some now playing in Athens. The war and invasion also took their toll: Iraqis have not been able to hold home games because of the continuing bombs and bloodshed; their German coach fled when insurgents started kidnapping and killing Westerners; Iraq was reinstated into the Olympic movement only months ago.

"Under Saddam the team was very tight and closed," said Bassam Hamy, 28, another fan at the Cafe Babel. He was wrapped in an Iraqi flag. "Now they have freedom."

His friend, Linord Emmanouel, 32, was handing out flags. He fled Baghdad as a teenager and has lived in Athens for five years. Seeing Iraq defeat teams much better than it sent him dancing and singing into the streets after the matches with Portugal and Costa Rica.

"I look at this team as my people," he said. "It's only a game and only a sport, but this shows that Iraq is still on the map. With all its problems, Iraq is still alive."

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