New joy for a new nation

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

PATRAS, Greece – By the time they capped it with the final, fabulous goal of this improbable Olympic moment – Iraq 4, Portugal 2 – the south stands here were in full, unbridled glory, unleashing a lifetime of pent-up passion with song, dance and waving flags.

Around 2,500 Iraqi soccer fans had hijacked an old Saddam Hussein song and made it their own, the Iraqi people's own, to celebrate perhaps their nation's greatest and certainly its most unifying sporting achievement ever.

And now they were singing it over and over, high and deep into the clear Greek sky for all the world to hear.

Out was the old: "By our souls and blood we are giving life to you, Saddam, Saddam, Saddam."

In was the new: "By our souls and blood we are giving life to you, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq."

The new Iraq, competing in its first Olympic event since the fall of a tyrannical dictator whose son used to torture this very team, but still living under a difficult and dispiriting occupation, defeated a world soccer power here Thursday.

Do you believe in miracles?

In a nation of so brutal a past, so bleak a present, so uncertain a future, how can't you?

"You all know the situation in Iraq is very, very difficult," said coach Adnan Hamad. "I think we try to make our people happy today. It is very, very important for us.

"Everyone in Iraq who sees TV [is] now happy. For now they forget the security situation and the difficulties. This is very important for [Iraq], this moment."

To understate the significance of Iraq's victory over heavily favored Portugal is to ignore the tears of joy running down the faces of grown men in the stands, the touching, hand-in-hand way the players left the field and the repeated chants of "Iraq, Iraq, Iraq."

In a fractured nation where the median age is 19, sports, with its appeal to the young and ability to unify diverse groups, is incredibly important to the future.

Perhaps no country has had a more difficult couple of years, from the final days of Saddam's regime, to the war with coalition forces, to the occupations and uprisings which continue to make it one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Then there is this vagabond team, a surprise spring qualifier for the Olympics that doesn't even have a home stadium. Due to logistics it held just two practices in unsettled Iraq since qualifying. ("Many road closed," said Hamad. "Many problems in Baghdad.") It had only one week of training heading into the Games.

So the throng of rabid, rowdy fans – some traveling in from Baghdad, some expats from Greece, Turkey and even the United States who had years ago fled Saddam's regime – descended on this coastal city about 130 miles northwest of Athens for this opening-round match not expecting victory, just history.

The Iraqis merely taking the field was enough cause for celebration – "a miracle," said one. When Emad Mohammed scored Iraq's first goal, some fans were so overjoyed they ran onto the field to hug the players, who promptly hugged them back.

By the end it was pure pandemonium, indescribable joy.

"Believe in us," said Amit Hawar of Baghdad through an English-speaking friend. "Iraqis are strong. With football [the world] sees this now."

Where this will lead is destiny's guess. This country's Olympic history is meager, its lone medal a 1960 bronze in weightlifting. It sent just four athletes to the Sydney Games.

This was a soccer team that, like all Iraqi athletes, had endured years of torture, imprisonment and even murder for poor play at the hands of the country's then-sports minister, Saddam's brute son Uday.

Which may explain why the Iraqis played with an obvious freedom Thursday. When defensemen Jabar Haidar knocked the ball into his own net, he shook it off and played well, unworried that Uday's thugs would later cane his feet.

"All the players [used to be] fearful," said Amer Shmogn, 41, of Baghdad. "Because you know your government [would punish poor play]. They kill [players] when team lose. Put in prison.

"After many years Iraq can play."

Can they ever, which is why this may not be a one-time thing, a once in a lifetime moment.

But for one night no one cared about the future, about the possibilities, about achieving more. For one night in Iraq this was enough, a soccer match delivering delirium in the streets, unity among people and a sense of hope that is all too rare.

"It is time to forget the pain and what happened during the war," said team captain Wahab Abu Al Hail.

That reality will return. So too will the questions about the future.

"I'm very sad when I see my country," said Shmogn of Baghdad. "The United States of America? Until I know, I don't know [what to think]. The future is unknown.

"But what can you do? I hope. I hope."

A soccer team leading the way ... for Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.

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