Conquerors Iraq join favourites in final four
There may be a South American flavour to the semi-finals of the Olympic Football Tournament but all the headlines will be grabbed by Iraq who scored a 1-0 win over Australia to make history. The Asian survivors will now play Paraguay, another record-breaking team after their 3-2 victory against Korea Republic. Their neighbours and tournament favourites Argentina ran out easy 4-0 winners against Costa Rica, setting up a tough yet tempting semi-final with Italy, who had themselves needed a goal four minutes from the end of extra-time to put out Mali, Africa's last hope to retain Gold.
Mali 0:1 Italy
Iraq 1:0 Australia
Argentina 4:0 Costa Rica
Paraguay 3:2 Korea republic
While Iraq remains in the grip of conflict, its footballing sons are giving the country's downtrodden population much to shout about. It was not easy against one of the more talented Australia crops but Adnan Hamad's team had the belief, a bit of luck and the fanatical backing of their 5,000 strong band of travelling supporters to see them through. With young Alex Brosque prominent down the left, Frank Farina's side had the better of the early going, launching an aerial challenge the Iraqis were just about able to cope with.
It was not pretty in Greece's beautiful island of Crete but the winning strike was worth the entrance money alone. And who else but Emad Mohammed, one of Asia's brightest stars finally given the global platform a player of his talent deserves, to score? His spectacular bicycle kick arrived in the 64th minute and the sound of tributes could be heard all over Iraq and among the 10,000 fans in Heraklion. At the end the tight-knit group of players, many of whom had arrived in Greece only relatively fresh after reaching the last eight at the Asian Cup, embraced their fans. They had bettered the quarter-final position reached in Moscow in 1980
In the Greek capital, more than 27,000 fans converged on the rebuilt Karaiskaki stadium hoping to see a classic between Mali and Italy. But despite the African team's seductive earlier performances, they seemed unable to get up for the game. They were not helped when their talented midfielder, Valencia's Momo Sissoko, had a penalty saved by Ivan Pelizzoli after half an hour. At the time, the tournament's joint topscorer Tenema Ndiaye was not getting much change out of the Italian defence, built firmly by coach Claudio Gentile, while at the other end top marksman, Parma's Alberto Gilardino, missed a bundle of presentable chances. With the game slipping towards penalties, Cesare Bovo saved azzurri heartache when he rose to an Andrea Pirlo free kick to plant an unstoppable header home.
Even if the locals were not, the Red Devil Korean fans were again out in number in Greece's northern capital of Thessaloniki. They screamed and chanted, banged drums and wore traditional costumes but it was Paraguay who made the show, marching to a 3-0 lead with 20 minutes left thanks to Fredy Bareiro (2) and striking partner Jose Cardozo. But, as usual, the Koreans kept on singing and finally the Taeguk Warriors found some rhythm. Chief orchestrator, Real Sociedad's Lee Chun-soon, demanded respectful silence with an unstoppable 35-yarder into the top corner on 74. Five minutes later, the blond striker grabbed his second from the penalty spot to set up a grandstand finish. But Carlos Jara's Paraguayan defence stood firm as both sides took the bows after an open and entertaining encounter.
South-west in Patras, Argentina underlined their favourites' status with another devastating performance to outclass Costa Rica. Many of Marcelo Bielsa's side had been crowned world youth champions back in Buenos Aires three years ago but the star of the show in Argentina's fourth consecutive victory had only come to prominence in the FIFA U-17 World Championship a few months later in Trinidad & Tobago. With a superb hat-trick Carlos Tevez not only doubled his scoring tally to become the top goalscorer in the tournament with six goals, but he is gradually becoming more and more comfortable in the albiceleste number 10 vacated by Diego Maradona. After Cesar Delgado had opened the scoring following up a parried Christian Gonzalez drive, Tevez slotted home another cross from the Inter man before finishing off the Ticos with two goals in two minutes: a one-on-one and a fine solo effort. After such a performance, fans back home eagerly awaiting the nation's first Olympic Gold may well have to get used to watching the Boca Juniors' man on television on European fields.
So from 16 teams, two fascinating semi-finals are left. On Tuesday all will be revealed but whatever happens, the Olympic Final looks set to become, just as it is scheduled, the perfect way to kick off the last hours of the greatest sporting day on the planet.