Iraq beat Australia to keep their dream alive (1:0)
Joseph S. Blatter and everyone else in Heraklion's Pankrito Stadium bore witness to a very special match this Saturday 21 August 2004. In terms of quality, the clash between Iraq and Australia was by no means the best this tournament has seen, but the win by Iraq elevated its status to that of a magnificent symbol - a ray of sunlight in the lives of a suffering people. There has been a unique bond between the Iraqi players and fans since the start of this competition, and both were in raptures when the final whistle went this evening to signal their qualification for their first-ever Olympic semi-final. After all they have achieved already in the competition, tonight's victory by Hamad Majeed's Adnan's men can hardly be classed as a shock, but it is certainly the continuation of a fairy tale - one that may be extended even further.
In the early parts of tonight's game both sides appeared sluggish, no doubt because of the intense heat. Iraq nonetheless started the more adventurous and forged their first chance after just six minutes, when Eugene Galekovic went close with a 25-yard free-kick. The Middle Easterners clearly thought they could get some joy down the flanks but the Australian defence held firm in the face of repeated raids by Mohammed Hawar Mulla and Mohammed Emad.
In the ninth minute, Iraq threatened again, when Mulla rose high at the back post to meet a corner, but he could not direct his header on target. For the Olyroos, Alex Brosque was proving dangerous down the right and their aerial prowess was also beginning to pose problems to the Iraqis. They went close from a corner in the 14th minute, when Adrian Madaschi popped up unmarked but, like Mulla moments earlier, failed to steer his header goal-ward.
|Iraq's Younis Mahmoud (L) vies for the ball against Australia's Anthony Danze during their Olympic Games quaterfinal football match, 21 August in Heraklion. AFP PHOTO|
Those narrow escapes prompted the Iraqis to up their game, and Abdul Wahab Abu Al Hail unleashed a ferocious long-range volley in the 38th minute but was dismayed to see it fizz narrowly wide. The stalemate persisted all the way until half-time.
The Aussies emerged from the dressing room determined to attack more, and within minutes of the resumption Brosque raced onto a dinky pass and lifted a delicate lob over the advancing goalkeeper, but Nour somehow managed to scramble back in time to make a last-gasp save. Moments later, Borsque tried another shot, and this time Nour could only push it out as far as the feet of Danze, who comfortably slotted the ball home - unfortunately for the Perth Glory midfielder, he was adjudged to be off-side and the goal did not stand. "It doesn't matter if the off-side decision was correct or not," said Farina after the game, "the fact was that the scoreboard still read 0-0."
The singing in the stands grew louder and louder as the thousands of Iraqi fans did their utmost to spur their team on, but it was still the Olyroos who were looking the more likely to score. In the 59th minute, Aloisi butted the ball towards goal, but Nour delighted the Iraqi supporters with another acrobatic save. Then it was Brosque's turn to perform more trickery down the left before delivering a tantalising cross for Ryan Griffiths, but again the header went wide.
By this stage Iraq were reeling, but such is this team's character that they managed to muster a stinging riposte. After Australia only half-cleared a corner on 64 minutes, Karim Mahdi chipped the ball back into the danger zone and Emad produced an acrobatic scissors-kick to whack the ball into the net to give Iraq a sensational lead and send their fans into delirium.
Frank Farina's troops had no intention of lying down and accepting defeat and they came within inches of grabbing an immediate equaliser. Captain Wilskhire lead by example and barged through the middle before letting fly with a blockbuster that crashed back off the cross-bar. In the 73rd minute, McKain added his name to the long list of Australians who steered headers wide.
Iraq went forward in search of a second to seal victory, and in the 74th minute Farhan Razzaq lifted the ball over his marker before collecting it on the other side and blasting goal-ward from close range only for goalkeeper Galekovic to pull off a splendid save. Five minutes later, Razzaq menaced again, this time intercepting a sloppy back-pass, but Galekovic surged from his line to make another crucial intervention. The Australians spent the remainder of the match camped in their opponents' half, but Iraq proved their resilience by keeping them at bay and reaching the semi-finals for the first time in their history. "Australia played very well tonight," said Adnan afterwards, "and it was very difficult to keep it going in that heat. But we won, and it's an indescribable joy to be able to give this victory to the Iraqi people, who are suffering so much right now."
Frank Farina, meanwhile, was a good deal more downcast, saying "I thought we deserved to win. But in football, you have to put the ball in the net. Iraq did that, we didn't."