Iraq's dream to win an Olympic medal came to a disappointing end in Thessaloniki on Friday after an 8th-minute Alberto Gilardino goal was enough to give Italy bronze. Both sides had plenty of chances in an open and competitive match played in the spirit of fair play. FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, Italian Federation (FIGC) President Franco Carraro and the head of the delegation from Iraq, Amer Jaber, were present at the game and watched as the players posed together before the match to show solidarity following the killing of an Italian journalist in Iraq the night before.
Italy were at full strength while Iraq surprisingly left out star pair Emad Mohammed and Younis Mahmoud. The Azzurri, wearing black armbands, began brightly and were ahead inside ten minutes. The creator was AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo. Italy's captain teased his way to the goalline before chipping delicately for Gilardino to head in (1-0, 8). Fittingly, the Parma starlet raised both hands and head towards the heavens.
The windy conditions were already a bit of a nuisance and making life difficult for the keepers. Salih Sadir tested Ivan Pelizzoli before Gilardino, acrobatically, shot straight at Nour Sabri at the other end a minute later. The game was surprisingly open with an Olympic medal at stake. Razzaq Farhan almost scored from a farcical position sat on the ground before a series of inswinging corners had Pelizzolo thanking his crossbar for saving two consecutive deliveries viciously swung in.
|A battle for Bronze. M. Stahlschmidt/SSP/FIFA|
At the other end, the Pirlo-Gilardino combination was clicking. The striker just failed to control another brilliant Pirlo pass as Italy, running well off the ball, looked for the second.
Hamad's side were also playing some nice, much more controlled, stuff than against Paraguay in the semi-final. From consecutive free kicks just after the half hour, Haidar Jabar and Salih gave the Roma keeper more work.
The Middle East team now had the bit between their teeth. Mahdi Karim fed Razzaq but the forward, who had just been attended off the pitch, scuffed his shot with Salih failing to control the rebound. Hawar Lulla Mohammed was beavering around up front and forced a rare mistake from the Italian defence but Razzaq, again, just could not prosper.
With more space than in previous matches Pirlo was a constant menace himself and curled a trademark 25-yard free kick inches wide of post and bar with more than an hour played. The no. 10 then caressed a pass to Gilardino but with the goal gaping, his effort sailed well over. The Parma man hit the target in a copy-cat move a few minutes later but Nour was equal to it.
Qusai Munir suddenly came into the game. The tough tackling midfielder blasted well over from the edge of the area and found more space inside the box with a little over ten minutes to go but hit the side netting. Hamad threw Emad and Younis on but except for the former's low saved effort the two were not able to conjure up the equaliser.
At the end, the two teams swapped shirts and hugged in a moving gesture.
"In view of the circumstances, reaching the semi final is a major achievement," commented Iraqi coach Hamad afterwards. "We wanted to at least get the bronze to bring happiness for our people but although I think we were the better team, in the end we could not.
"I would like to congratulate the Italian team and offer condolences to the bereaved family and the Italian people."
Italy coach Claudio Gentile expressed his satisfaction on winning a medal but admitted preparing for the game had not been easy: "When it was decided to play this game our players were not in the best psychological condition. It was perhaps not the most beautiful game but it a historic achievement nevertheless."