Medal or not, future will test Iraq's mettle

Men's Soccer

Athens Olympics

Prime time tonight: Track and field, diving, women's triathlon, wrestling. Chs. 11, 4 at 8 p.m.

August 25, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

THESSALONIKI, Greece -- Sitting in the stands, the former coach of the Iraqi national soccer team was very emotional after Iraq lost, 3-1, to Paraguay yesterday. Now, it's bronze the players shoot for, and then who knows.

"It went as I expected," Bernd Strange said.

"These players didn't play a championship in Iraq. There's a war going on. They don't have proper food or medical treatment. Where they train in Amman [Jordan], it's a long car ride. You could see they were frail today, not as sharp."

Appointed by Saddam Hussein's son Uday, Strange spent two years as coach of the Iraqi national team, but he was lucky. In that time, he never had the pleasure of meeting the now-dead son of the Iraqi dictator.

Before he was advised to leave Iraq, for security reasons, Strange said he did what he could, "like a father," to supply the Iraqis with as much as he could. But after he watched them falter in the semifinal match in a three-quarters-empty stadium, Strange was compelled to issue a plea as much as a report.

"All these players who performed so well will leave Iraq," Strange said.

"The clubs won't be as strong. And if the clubs aren't strong, then there's no sponsorship. Without sponsorship, there's no money. Some of these players have 30 people in their families depending on them. They will go play even in places like Syria or Qatar, where soccer isn't so strong, if they can make a living."

For 1,000 or so Iraqi expatriates who came from Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Greece to drape themselves in flags and cheer for Iraq last night, the soccer team was a cathartic way of transforming despair into hope.

"I didn't call my family more than five or 10 times," said Bassim Al-Taei, who left Iraq 14 years ago for Stockholm, where he owns an import-export business.

"It was political [why he left]. They killed my brother. In 1989, my brother, Hazem, said something to friends about why we go into Kuwait? Soon, [someone] shot him. He was 21. Engineer," Al-Taei said.

A soccer referee in Stockholm, Al-Taei, 52, could not help but project his sense of renewed hope onto the Iraqi team.

"Now this team plays free," he said, holding his wrists crossed, like in shackles, then breaking them apart. "That is why they play with such freedom."

Freedom is good, yes, but how far will that take them?

We could broad-brush Iraq's amazing run during these Olympics, where it beat Portugal, Costa Rica and Australia before losing to Paraguay. But with a bronze medal to play for in one final Olympic game, the future is coming on fast.

Like everything else about Iraq, adrenaline and hope and the first taste of freedom will carry the national soccer team only so far.

Iraqi soccer is more than just a novelty act, more than a feel-good Olympic story that even the president of the United States slaps on a news release.

Iraqi soccer is also less formidable than what appeared during the team's celebrated run. We'll see how much energy they have left in the bronze game against Italy after so much commotion, answering all the questions.

Reports that President Bush would have come to Greece if the Iraqis had made it to the gold-medal match drew weary smiles from some Iraqi players last night. They had already made it clear: The U.S. president should not use them as a political platform for his agenda or re-election.

"I am not a politician. I am only a soccer player. I will leave that for the politicians," forward Ahmed Salah said.

Now, the celebration of Iraq's presence and success in these Games is turning into something else:

Worry -- like just about everything else about Iraq's future.

"We spent billions of dollars for war. Let's spend billions for peace," said Strange, who bought his own ticket to the game.

"Don't forget football [soccer] is a game they love. If you take away football, it's no different than if you took away basketball from people in the United States or taking away football from England. There are 26 million people, and they love this game. Do something for the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. Do something for the future of Iraqi children."

Sitting in the stands, listening to the cheers from Iraqi fans, Strange said he wants to go back to work with the players, with the team. Time will be very important, because like so much else about the infrastructure in Iraq, soccer's has crumbled, too.

Though he was advised to leave Iraq after the team qualified for the Olympics by beating Saudi Arabia, Strange can't let go. You become a father, a shepherd, a passionate spokesman when you drive players across the border from Baghdad to Amman, when you sleep in airports together, when you overcome rubble and bombs and crisis.

"I tried to bring this team to the world. We brought this team to Japan, Korea, England, to the Asia Cup. I was criticized by Iraqi citizens. How can you go take this team to the mortal enemy? But I think it is that we are ambassadors to the world," he said.

The Iraqi team has been that during these Olympics. It was startling and stunning, in part because the players showed their skill and how they were inspired by freedom.

But now?

Now is different.

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