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Iraqi soccer team is back in contention

No longer willing to stand on the sidelines, Iraq’s national football team completes its ‘Goodwill tour’ of the U.K. on Thursday and is gearing up for this summer’s Olympics in Athens.
/ Source: NBC News

Once a major force in Asia, Iraq’s soccer team reached its peak in 1986, qualifying for the World Cup tournament in Mexico.

But, with its country ravaged by wars and embargoes, the Iraqi team plummeted from that pinnacle down the world’s rankings year after year, becoming the forgotten men of world soccer.

No longer willing to stand on the sidelines, Iraq’s national soccer team completed its "Goodwill tour" of Britain on Thursday and is preparing to compete in the Olympics in Athens in August.

Despite the uncertainty the future holds for their country, the team is currently buoyed by a new sense of confidence, especially after defeating Saudi Arabia 3-1 a few weeks ago to qualify for the Olympics.

While in Britain, the team won the mother of all victories against a select team of British Members of Parliament with a score of 11-0 last Friday, then lost to a decent Trinidad and Tobago team 2-0 the following Sunday.

The point of the exhibition though was about far more than getting results, it was about getting back in the game.

On a new footing
The soccer facilities players have enjoyed over the last two weeks are a far cry from those they have had to put up with in Iraq.

“After the last war there was nothing,” declared their German coach Bernde Sange. “Absolutely nothing. No soccer balls, no pitches, no jerseys, no goalposts.”

Credit must go to Sange, who once coached the East Germany soccer team during the communist era.

Along with the team’s captain, Hassan Fawzi, he has created a great team spirit, and the recent achievements have exceed all expectations. His application to the task is admirable and his belief in his players is unquestionable.

“They are fighters,” Sange said last week. “We have climbed in the world rankings to number 44. We qualified for the Asia Cup and now we have qualified for the Olympics. Can you imagine how proud the Iraqi people are?”

His team has not always had such leadership. Under the command of Saddam’s psychotic elder son Usay, frequent reports came out of Iraq that team members were subjected to torture by electrodes after underperforming and players had their feet pummeled by truncheons when they lost. 

“Before, the players were playing under great emotional stress,” said team captain Fawzi, with a degree of understatement. “Stress in that there were pressures applied on them by parties. Now, now it is a lot better.”

Determined to prevail
With these kind of restrictions behind them, Sange believes it is onward and upward for Iraqi soccer.

“That is our goal,” Sange said. “To go to the World Cup in 2006.  But it is a long way to go.”

But who would bet against the Iraqis?

This once great team has apparently pulled itself from the brink to rise from the ashes and show the world it is capable of bettering itself.

In spite of the turmoil and devastation in Iraq left by years of fighting and the reign of a brutal dictator, the team is bound by a sense of determination not only to prevail, but to succeed.

Its success could offer a great example for the nation itself to follow.