Iraqi soccer team on mission of hope

For Iraq’s footballers, the Olympics are not about rubbing shoulders with some of the best players in the world or even the lure of Greek gold. They are an opportunity to restore pride and bring some crumbs of comfort and hope to the people of their war-ravaged country. Iraq, which overcame severe hardship on the road to Greece, seized the chance by stunning Portugal 4-2 in their opening group match of the Athens Games on Thursday. Almost daily news bulletins of further destruction and bloodshed back home will drive the Iraqi players to keep punching above their weight, according to their coach Adnan Hamd. «The players talk about the bad news and they are very worried about their families in Baghdad and other cities,» Hamd told Reuters yesterday. «But, you know, it just makes us more determined to make people in Iraq happy in this difficult situation in our country. We will try to do our compatriots proud.» Iraq’s cash-strapped football team has had to face enormous obstacles as stadiums were destroyed in the US-led invasion and pitches turned into hospitals or cemeteries. «There are still a lot of problems,» said Hamd, whose under-23 side defied extreme odds to reach the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in China last month. «After the Asian Cup, we had two days of training in Baghdad but some players could not come because roads were closed by the American army and they were not allowed outside.» Distressed at the heightened chaos in Iraq, Hamd’s predecessor, German Bernd Stange, quit last month, saying he feared for his life amid escalating violence. Iraq, though, are accustomed to battling adversity, qualifying for the Asian Cup despite having to play their «home» games in neutral Jordan, a difficult bus ride away. When the team secured qualification for Athens with a 3-1 win over bitter rivals Saudi Arabia in May, Baghdad went berserk, with gunfire in the streets and flares lighting up the skies. Iraq has won just one Olympic medal in its history, a weightlifting bronze at the 1960 Rome Games. But Hamd’s players are on a mission to win a second medal for the country. «We know that people in Iraq are praying for a good result… when we play in Athens,» said Hamd. «It is difficult for us to play with all the problems but we must play with confidence… to bring hope and pride to people in Iraq.» (Reuters)

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