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ATHENS 2004

Iraq Is One Win From a Medal

The Cinderella soccer team advances to the semifinals with a win over Australia.

August 22, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

HERAKLION, Greece — In a game of many missed chances Saturday night, Mohammed Emad and Joseph "Sepp" Blatter didn't miss theirs.

Emad flipped himself into the air and, with an overhead bicycle kick, knocked Australia out of the men's Olympic soccer tournament and at the same time put his own country, Iraq, into the semifinals with a 1-0 victory in front of 10,023 at Pankritio Stadium.

Blatter, too, was forced into all sorts of verbal somersaults by a question from British journalist Jamie Jackson of England's Observer newspaper, and his answer was nowhere near as deft as Emad's acrobatics.

"After Iraq had beaten Portugal, 4-2, you raised the hand of the president of the Iraq football federation, Hussein Saeed Mohammed, who used to work for Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein," Jackson began at a pregame news conference. "Wasn't that a little bit embarrassing for you?"

Blatter, president of FIFA and a member of the IOC, was momentarily flustered but had time to conjure up an answer while the question was translated into Greek.

"He was at that time the general secretary of the federation," Blatter said. "He was also a member of one of FIFA's committees. He was always a good-standing member of the FIFA committee. We helped him to take the leadership of the federation despite opposition inside the country.

"He is footballer. He was a footballer. We trust him and we regret what has happened with politics in Iraq. We are going forward, looking forward, and working also not only for football but also for peace.

"Football can be one of the tools of peace not only in this country but all around the world."

Hussein Saeed Mohammed was not at Saturday's post-match news conference, although he had been at others, and Iraq Coach Adnan Hamad Majeed was left to speak about Australia being "a very tough opponent" and about this victory "giving great happiness to our people."

They were the same sort of comments heard after Iraq's earlier victories over Portugal and Costa Rica, and even after its loss to Morocco.

The Iraqi team has become a political football, however, with President George W. Bush using the team's success in commercials for his re-election campaign, a move that has angered some Iraqis.

"Bush helps destroy our country," Hamad told Associated Press. "After a year and a half, we have passed into a very bad situation."

Emad's goal, in the 64th minute, climaxed a match in which both teams squandered scoring chances. Australia was especially to blame, although Iraqi goalkeeper Sabri Nour did pull off some excellent saves to deny the Aussie forwards.

"As I've always maintained, in football you have to put the ball in the net," said Australia Coach Frank Farina. "We created a lot of chances and didn't score."

Asked if it was "any consolation to lose to the Cinderella story of the Olympics," Farina was quick with his answer.

"Definitely not," he said. "That's the tragedy of football sometimes. At the end of the day, Iraq took their chance and won, one-nil. We're all disappointed, as we should be."

Farina dismissed the notion that Iraq's team is especially gifted, even though it has reached the semifinals, and scoffed at the idea that the turmoil in Iraq had in any way influenced the game.

"I think if we were outplayed we could accept the loss a lot easier," he said. "I'll be honest and say it doesn't soften the blow that it was Iraq who beat us. The politics of what's going on didn't come into it. It was a game of football, a quarterfinal at the Olympics, and we're disappointed to lose."

Equally disappointed was Mali, which held out against Italy for 116 minutes before succumbing, 1-0, to a goal by Cesare Bovo 26 minutes into overtime. The loss means Africa will not win a third consecutive gold medal after Nigeria's success in 1996 and Cameroon's in 2000.

Bovo's strike was enough to put the Italians into the semifinals, where they will play Argentina, which routed Costa Rica, 4-0, behind a hat trick by Boca Juniors forward Carlos Alberto Tevez.

The night's other quarterfinal saw Paraguay edge South Korea, 3-2, at Thessaloniki, setting up a semifinal with Iraq in the same city on Tuesday.

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