Monday, August 23, 2004

Iraq win Olympic pride on the pitch

Baghdad, BBC Sport

It is late night on the streets of Baghdad. You can see the red lights of the tracer bullets as they are across the sky. Gunfire is common here. This time though, it's in celebration.

I walk into a cafe on the banks of the River Tigris. There's a television with a bad signal in one corner. The Iraqi commentator is getting excited. So too are the men watching. Then I hear the roar of "Gooooaaaaaaal!" The men jump up, cheering, huge smiles, hugging and kissing one another. Perhaps if we keep winning we'll be able to forget the past and move on Young Baghdad footballer "The Iraqi people is holding its head high because of this," one man explains. "We're so proud of the team." Iraq's footballers are defying all the odds. Their country is in the grip of violence. Last year their president was removed from power. They have little money, bad training facilities, and yet still they are through to the Olympic quarter finals. Fancied They have beaten Portugal - the team which were runners up in the European football championships this summer. Iraq qualified for the knock-out rounds top in their group

They came top of their group. And now they must be fancied against Australia in the quarter finals. In Basim al-Haji's sports shop in Baghdad, business is finally looking better thanks to the team. Ever since the overthrow of Saddam the last thing on people's minds has been buying sport's gear. But now things are improving. "Demand has been going up anyway thanks to the Olympics. But now so many people are coming in to buy the new Iraqi football shirt." "With every good result we sell more." Mortar attacks Iraq's victories are all the more incredible when you travel across Baghdad to see the national stadium.

It is desolate, neglected, and locked away behind barbed wire. The last time the national side played here was when Saddam was in power. The players are affected by what's happening here. But if they play well it will inspire the whole country to work together

Najah Hamoud,Former Iraq coach

In recent weeks mortars have fallen around the stadium. During Olympic qualifiers the opposition refused to come to play in Baghdad. It was just too dangerous they said. So Iraq's new football stars have not played a single home game.

Najah Hamood is a former national coach, now a member of the Iraqi Football Association. "Of course the players are affected by what's happening here," he says. "We're trying to tell them if they play well then that will inspire the whole country to work together." "Perhaps footballing victory can help re-build our country."

Long shot Back on the banks of the Tigris the football stars of the future are training. The sun is low, about to set, dripping gold and orange over the players. They kick up the dust as they run down the makeshift pitch.

Football has long been a passion in Iraq Overhead US helicopters patrol, drowning out the sound of their shouts. A reminder of the war that continues to affect their lives.

During half time one of the boys tells me: "If we make it to the next round then everybody will be happy." "Perhaps if we keep winning we'll be able to forget the past and move on." He gives half a smile, as if he knows it is a long shot. Across Iraq they are hoping their side continues to win. But already the squad has done its country proud.

Source: BBCSport