Full Story: CLICK HEREOriginally posted by msnbc.com
By Ron Borges
Updated: 6:28 p.m. ET Aug. 19, 2004
ATHENS, Greece - One more unlikely victory and the Iraqi soccer team will be something no one would have thought possible just a few months ago. They will be Olympic medalists.
But advancing from Saturday's quarterfinals to the semifinal medal round is a small step for a team of athletes that already made a giant leap for their war-torn country and for themselves.
Not so many months ago there was no reason to believe the Iraqi soccer team, which had not competed in the Olympics since 1988, would be anywhere near Athens this week. Their German coach and father figure, Bernd Stange, had just quit, fearing for his life. And their team had to beat Saudi Arabia, which it had not done in years, to be among the qualifiers.
Somehow they did it.
After being the only known Olympic competitors to reach Greece via military airlift, the Iraqis then had to face the powerful Portuguese in their first game. They did more than that. They won 4-2.
A fluke, most soccer observers said. Then Sunday they not only defeated Costa Rica 2-0 to reach the quarterfinals, but did so with a display of what will be necessary for their country to build the kind of nation most living there want: a unified one.
In a metaphor for what defines the Olympics and a country, the only Kurdish player on the team, Hawar Mulla Muhammed, scored the game's first goal and assisted on the second, sending a soft crossing pass to Mahdi Karim, a Shiite.
In a country split by factionalized fighting between Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis for 2,000 years, it was a signal to people back home that one's faith did not matter. What matters is cooperation and the willingness to work toward a single purpose.
In the short term, that idea is helping Iraq earn victories at Athens. But if the lesson of this team is learned, there is more they can do. They can become a salve for a country's wounds and an example of how best to bind them.
“Our job is to help rebuild the country to be what it can be,” coach Adnan Hamad said after the victory over Costa Rica. “We know what this means to our people. We hear the news from home and the players talk about the bad news, but it makes us more determined.”
I truly hope they medal. It would be good for the war torn country.