Iraq is the new dream team

Dan Wetzel

ATHENS, Greece – Could they actually win this thing?

Could the Iraqi soccer players, whose stadium was damaged beyond use during the war, who due to the impossible logistics of occupation trained together only one week prior to the Olympics, who represent a war-torn country that hasn't medaled in anything in 44 years, win it all, go for the gold?

Could they wind up in Olympic Stadium at month's end and have the Iraqi national anthem ring through Athens, echo around the globe and cap what would be one of the greatest sports stories ever told?

Could they?

"In sport," said Ahmed Al-Samarrai, the head of Iraq's Olympic committee, "anything is possible."

How is this: Iraq 2, Costa Rica 0; two games, two victories and a slot in the quarterfinals for a team that was supposed to make everyone happy by just being here?

You need a new "Dream Team" to root for? Well, here you go.

Years of suffering
They are best known for the torture they suffered under Saddam Hussein and his son, Uday – poor play resulted in imprisonment, caning and who knows what else. But now the Iraqis, free from the fear of failure, with destiny on their bench, and with an incomparable mental toughness, are playing as well with as any team in the Games.

"I believe we have a very strong team," said coach Adnan Hamad through a translator. "I believe we have a team that can reach perhaps further stages. The first victory (over powerhouse Portugal) certainly made a difference and certainly gave a boost to each player's performance."

Straight out of a war-torn country where violence, terrorism and rebel uprisings are a daily reality, the team now brings hope and happiness to a people who so need it.

"I can imagine they are shooting now in the air instead of shooting somebody," said Al-Samarrai of the scene back in Iraq. "It is really the right time for them. Cease fire, peaceful for a couple of hours as they are watching their football. Then celebration. Hopefully they will continue like that, not in the violence.

"The Iraqi people, they (missed) that happiness being under torture or dictatorship. They have been in wars with neighbors. Until now they are not settled 100 percent.

"This is a moment for them to be crazy."

Wild scene in the stands
If the reaction in Baghdad is anything like the bedlam that befell the south stands here at Karaiskaki Stadium on the outskirts of Athens, then crazy isn't a strong enough word. About 10,000 Iraqi fans came and never stopped dancing, chanting, singing or waving flags during the match.

After each of the team's goals, a few dozen were so overjoyed that they ran onto the field to hug the players.

Perhaps no team has ever ridden the energy and emotion of its fans more. It can’t be understated.

"In each step they take, they are pushed with the pride of the Iraqi people," said Al-Samarrai.

Afterward, the team linked hands at midfield and in tribute ran toward the fans, who were by now singing their new favorite song: "By our souls and blood we are giving life to you, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq."

Eighteen months ago the final words were Saddam, Saddam, Saddam.

"No Saddam. Look at Iraq," said fan Hadi Shani of Mosul. "Look at Iraq! All we (needed) was a chance. Now you see."

Low-key coverage in the U.S.
The story is still somewhat of a secret in the United States, where NBC has paid terribly little attention to it and few media outlets have staffed games. But that will change. There could be no greater story to come out of these Olympics than the one the Iraqis are capable of writing.

This team isn't Cinderella; it is Cinderella's maid.

This is the Miracle on Ice, only vastly more improbable. This is a simple soccer team, defying all odds and all obstacles to tell the world there is more to its country than the misery that is flashed across CNN.

"We feel Iraq can do more," said Hamad. "It has incredible resources. It has the capability to do far more than you see now."

Hamad is the first to remind you that things are tough in Iraq right now, but boy doesn't this help. This team was first celebrated for just representing the country, then for giving it a shot of pride by besting Portugal in the opening game. That was supposed to be enough.

But now? Two games, two victories? Yes the world powers await, but a top seed in the Saturday's quarterfinals?

This is becoming bigger, grander.

Could they?

"The first game, Portugal, I don't believe it," said fan Hasson Mohammad of Baghdad. "I can't believe it. Now..."

He paused to consider it.

"Maybe. Maybe more."

Maybe all of it.