ZARAGOZA SPAIN — ZARAGOZA, Spain -- Historic Romareda Stadium, host to yesterday's first-round Olympic soccer match between the United States and Kuwait, gave little sign of Olympic hoopla. Instead, the stadium bore all the trappings of a patriotic pep rally.
The signs hung around the stadium read "Kuwait Thanks USA." Kuwaiti fans wore their country's colors -- green, red, white and black -- but around their shoulders they draped American flags. They chanted and cheered for the U.S. soccer team, something even Americans seldom do.
After the game, the traditional sporting handshake likewise escalated into a love fest. Kuwaiti players kissed, hugged and slapped the backs of the bewildered American players. With tears in their eyes, they praised the United States for helping liberate their country during the Gulf War.
It was an unlikely setting for a hard-fought soccer match.
In fact, Kuwait accomplished a small measure of payback by losing to the U.S. Olympic team, 3-1, last night. The win was essential to the Americans' hopes of advancing beyond the first round, something a U.S. Olympic soccer team has never done. Yesterday's victory was only the third for Americans in Olympic competition.
The political overtones overshadowed what was an inconsistently played game for both teams. Kuwaiti fans, among the 3,000 who attended the match, distributed T-shirts and leaflets about Kuwaitis still being held in Iraq -- seeking to remind the world, or at least the part of it that traveled to this city 300 kilometers southwest of Barcelona.
Of course, such sportsmanship displayed by the Kuwaiti players is an important theoretical precept in the Olympic ideal. It's just that competition so often gets in the way. Not in this game.
That the team was even here is remarkable, given their ordeal of the past year. Kuwait's Brazilian coach, Valmir Louruz, was arrested at the start of the war and detained for 20 days by Iraqis. Upon his release, Louruz arranged to get himself and most of his soccer team out of the country. Since February, they have not been back and have been moving from country to country in search of training facilities.
"The effects of the war on Kuwait were very negative," Louruz said. "We don't have a stadium to train in. We have been training in Denmark for the last month. In terms of this team, we must prepare for the future, we have nothing now."
Louruz said that when the Kuwaiti players learned they would be facing the United States in the second game of the first round, they told him they were proud to be part of such a game.
"They told us after the game, 'Thank you for saving my country,' " said Dario Brose, who scored the first U.S. goal. "They invited us to come to their country. They just kept thanking us. We saw all the signs. I felt really proud."
U.S. coach Lothar Osiander was less proud than thankful for the win, after last Friday's loss to Italy. Not only was the win crucial, but the three goals -- all by players who didn't play in the first game -- may become important should there be a tie in Group A and goal differential is used to break it.
The U.S. team plays Poland here tomorrow. Poland, seeded third in the group but leading it now, beat Italy, 3-0, last night in Barcelona.
Osiander noted that he made three good decisions before and during the game: He chose to start Steve Snow, after the tempestuous goal-scorer apologized for critical statements. He put seldom-used Dario Brose at midfield, and Brose responded with a goal off a free kick to tie the game in the 56th minute. Then, when Brose got tired, Osiander took him out and replaced him with Manny Lagos. Lagos scored the go-ahead goal on a spectacular sliding left-footed kick.
Osiander was less enthusiastic about Snow, whose performance he described as "mediocre."
"He scored a goal and that's what he's supposed to do," Osiander said.
Osiander didn't start Snow in the first game and because of injury substitutions, the team's leading scorer didn't play at all. Snow questioned Osiander's tactics and said if he had played the team would have won.
Osiander has criticized Snow for his lack of team play and selfishness, and said Snow would not play again until he apologized.
There remains a noticeable coolness between coach and player, but the damage done by Snow's caustic remarks after the Italy game was partially repaired by his apology to Osiander and the team on Sunday.