Iraq and Australia: kindred spirits worlds apart
Two unfancied sides are about to face each other in the quarter-finals of the Olympic Football Tournament, and apart from their outsider status, the similarities between Iraq and Australia are hard to pinpoint. One is a large, developed country from Oceania, the other a Middle Eastern state ravaged by war. Yet while their languages and mentalities may be poles apart, the sporting aims of these two surprise teams in this second round are indistinguishable: to win an Olympic medal.
Australia made a total hash of "their" Olympic Football Tournament at Sydney 2000, failing to register a single point. The Olyroos' last good showing was way back in 1992, when they reached the semi-finals in Barcelona. Iraq have not even taken part in the Olympic Games since 1988. Their best-ever performance dates back to Moscow in 1980 when they reached the quarter-finals, so in the light of all the domestic turmoil, their strong showing in Greece is akin to a phoenix rising from the ashes.
"We're not stressed out, we're hyped up. We can't wait for the match because we have been working long and hard for this. We're in a situation where we have a real chance," declares Luke Wilkshire, Australia's midfield dynamo. Just happy to be here, no worries whatsoever, the Aussies are taking a quintessentially Australian approach. "The atmosphere is excellent and it's all systems go. There is no stress, but we're all ready for this make-or-break match. We know we're in with a shout of a medal but we're totally chilled," chips in dreadlocked defender Jade North.
If anything, the feel-good factor in the Iraqi camp is even more pervasive, as team captain Abdul Wahab Abu Al Hail explains: "This quarter-final is very important for our country. We want to forget our problems and bring a smile back to the faces of the Iraqi people by putting in good performances. It is our most heartfelt wish to spread a little happiness among our people."
With his hushed tones and anxious expression, he gives the impression of a shy young lad bewildered by the events unfolding around him, but appearances can be deceptive, for beneath his timid exterior lurks a steely resolve. "We have worked hard, because this match is crucial. It transcends the purely sporting context." he repeats mantra-like.
|L'Australien Luke Wilkshire, ici face à la Tunisie, espère bien faire tomber l'Irak, surprise du Tournoi olympique, en quart de finale le 21 août 2004 à Heraklion.|
Confidence with a healthy dose of caution
Confident, yes, but also cautious, for while neither Iraq or Australia can really be regarded as giants of world football, their displays so far have drawn plaudits aplenty. "We saw Australia's game against Tunisia and they're a really strong team. Their narrow defeat by Argentina is further proof of their quality. Quite a few of their side play in Europe, which is also significant. What's more, they finished second in a tricky Group C, which speaks volumes," the Iraqi midfielder underlines.
The Aussies make similar noises on the subject of their opponents. "We don't know a tremendous amount about the Iraqis, but we saw the video of their game with Portugal and they look dangerous. What's more, they came top of their group, so they must be doing something right!", North quite correctly points out.
The major problem afflicting the antipodean line-up will be the absence through suspension of three key men: Tim Cahill and Craig Moore, two of the overage players, plus Ahmad Elrich. But North refuses to make a drama out of a crisis. "Positive thinking, that's my motto. Okay, so we're without three important players, but we can't do anything about that and if you look at it another way, the three new lads are fresh as daisies and will be out to prove their worth to the coach."
Clearly determined to relish every moment on the pitch at these Olympic Games, Wahab Abu Al Hail sees no areas of concern for his team. "Our coach is excellent. He's a fine tactician and a vital advantage for our team. Our side is also young and talented, which I believe has been another major factor in our good results so far," is his positive assessment.
For the Australians, among whom the patriotic spirit is very much in evidence, it's winning medals that matters. To a man, they vow to follow every event at the Games in which an Aussie has any chance of a medal. "We want a medal too and we aim to get one," declares Wilkshire.
A medal to make a nation smile
In the Iraqi camp, it is fair to say they harbour a somewhat loftier goal than just getting a medal. When Wahab Abu Al Hail and Co. run out onto the pitch, they will be dreaming of inspiring an entire nation. "The people back home are following our performances. Life is very tough there and we represent a great ray of sunlight for them. We want to show the world that there's more to Iraq than Saddam, that Iraq is first and foremost for peace and we are friends of all countries. For me personally, I have this feeling inside me all the time at these Olympic Games."
And so two outsiders come face to face, both quite content with their long odds at the bookmaker's. "We're always the outsiders in football. We're used to this situation and thrive on the lack of pressure. It's the big teams who have to prove that they are really as good as they're cracked up to be. We're just happy to play and make progress," North asserts.
"We're the tournament's surprise team and we like it that way, having no pressure on our shoulders. We've been working together as a squad for six months now and we feel free as birds. This is the key to our performances in the Asian Cup and here in Greece. Now, the only thing on our minds when we go out onto the pitch is to win. Inch'Allah !", adds the midfielder from Iranian club Esteghlal Ahvaz. In the end then, it seems Australians and Iraqis have more in common that first impressions suggest.