ATHENS, Greece - With a string of unlikely victories, the Iraqi soccer team has done something no one would have thought possible just a few months ago. They are on the doorstep of an Olympic medal.
With Saturday's quarterfinal defeat of Australia, the team made it to the semifinals in 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 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.”
It is probably too much to ask for a soccer team to transform a country, but there is a lesson in their remarkable and unexpected success. It's that working together works. For a country that has been at war for decades in one form or another and ruled by a vicious dictator for nearly as long, that is a message worth receiving. Sometimes it is a message that must first be written on the level playing fields of sport, like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947 for the Dodgers.
It happens there first, this idea of abandoning old hates and fears in exchange for cooperation and, in the end, victory. Perhaps it must be delivered there first, on a place where politics counts the least because it seems safest there for all involved.
No one in Iraq cared that a Kurd scored the first goal against Costa Rica. They just cared that an Iraqi scored. Muhammed didn't refuse to send the ball in Karim's direction late in the game for religious or political reasons.
He didn't see a Shiite or a Sunni. He saw an Iraqi, like himself. A teammate. Back in ravaged Baghdad and war-torn Najaf and elsewhere, they saw the same thing. No quarrels on the team that wore green and white. Only one team.
One winning team that has become so big a story that NBC has decided to televise its quarterfinal match Sunday, a scheduling shift as unexpected as the Iraqi team's rise.
(NBC is a partner in the joint venture that runs NBCSports.com.)
When the final whistle sounded at Karaiskai Stadium and the game was won, the players linked arms and walked in the direction of their very loud fans, several of whom had already swarmed onto the field when Muhammed scored and had to be restrained by guards and Iraqi players.
As they approached them, the fans engulfed the players and they all held hands in a single line.
Not a line broken by hate or grudges. Not one sundered by rivalries whose origins were long forgotten. One line. One purpose.
That is something that will work for a soccer team, as the Iraqis have shown, but it will work just as well for a country.
"The games in Athens are the only way for Iraqis to forget about their tragedy,'' midfielder Hassan Turkey said.
He's right. But there is more that this team's success can do. It can be a reminder of possibilities to a country whose people for too long felt they had none.
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