Just reaching the last four at the Olympic Football Tournament is a stunning achievement for Iraq. And the fairytale is far from over. Victory over Paraguay in Tuesday's semi-final in Thessaloniki would maintain the pursuit of gold and guarantee Iraq its first Olympic medal in any discipline since Rome 1960, when weightlifter Abdul Wahid Aziz collected bronze in the lightweight division.
"We've achieved so much already. It was wonderful just qualifying for the Olympic Games in the first place. Our team is young, strong, and capable of good football. We want to do well for ourselves and for the Iraqi people. We're under no pressure, we can play the way we want, and we have nothing to lose," keeper Sabri Nour, a hero of the 1-0 quarter-final victory over Australia, told FIFA.com.
The Iraqi success story is founded on good, solid hard work. "This team wasn't thrown together yesterday," coach Adnan Hamad insists. The former player, named Iraq coach of the year four times in succession between 1999 and 2002, knew most of his squad from his days as a national youth coach. He took charge of the U-17s in 1998 at the Asian Cup, won the tournament as U-21 coach in 2000, while many of the same players went on to play at the FIFA World Youth Championship Argentina 2001. The team is a settled unit, practically identical to the side that made the AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals and kicked off its 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ qualifying campaign with successive victories.
Glory in defiance of circumstances
The team's achievements appear even more impressive in the light of the immensely strained circumstances surrounding football in Iraq. Travel, for example, puts an almost intolerable strain on the squad. The journey from Baghdad to Amman in Jordan, where the team normally begins its foreign trips and most recently caught the plane to Athens, takes close on 20 hours. In recent times, the deteriorating security situation at home has caused severe disruption to training, and the standard of facilities has sunk to an all-time low. Some of the players even started coming to training armed as the risk of violent attack increased.
Pride at representing their war-torn country on the international sporting stage is undoubtedly a powerful motivating factor for the Iraqis. "Our players are young and clever. They've been in the national side for a while. They see playing as a way of helping the people and putting the smile back on people's faces. Our team represents everyone in Iraq," comments Nour, who is typical of the squad in that he first started playing out in the Baghdad streets.
However, the game is only part of a bigger picture. When 20-year-old Nour begins talking about his wife Yosra and their six-month-old daughter Zainab, his dark eyes sparkle and a broad smile creases his friendly features. "I ring home every morning, just to hear how things are going and get the news from Baghdad," he explains. His greatest wish for the future is an improvement in conditions for players like himself. "I hope we can solve our problems. Our football won't improve until we tackle shortages of nutrition, derelict stadiums and poor training facilities."
Stats favour Paraguay
The teams have met twice at major tournaments, with Paraguay winning both. A clear-cut 4-0 victory in 1977 at the first FIFA World Youth Championship in Tunisia was followed by a triumph by the only goal in Toluca at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. Iraq have now played 14 matches at the Olympics, winning five, drawing four and losing five.
Those statistics will count for nothing when the Iraqis take the field on Tuesday at the Kaftanzoglio stadium in Thessaloniki. "We'll do the best we can and try and win it for the people," Nour declared.