Iraq team’s magical run hits a speed bump

Chinese players celebrate during Asian Cup quarterfinal win over Iraq in Beijing
Iraq's Qusay Munir picks up the ball as Chinese players celebrate after scoring on a penalty kick during their quarterfinal match at the Asian Cup tournament in Beijing on Friday. China won 3-0.China Photos / Reuters

Any bullets piercing Iraqi skies Friday night will be unambiguously unhappy ones.

After fans back home greeted Monday’s unexpected victory against No. 1 seed Saudi Arabia with celebratory gunfire, an unfocused Iraqi soccer team suffered a 3-0 defeat to Asian Cup host China.

China took the lead early, with veteran striker Hao Haidong scoring within the first eight minutes. Hao, who sat out Monday’s match against Qatar due to injury, had not been expected to play Friday night.

Poor concentration, an unencouraging 62,000-strong crowd, and a string of referee calls unfavorable to the Iraqis left the team frustrated throughout the match. Tempers boiled over in the last few minutes of the game, as Iraqi midfielder Qusay Munir instigated what became a 20-man brawl between the two teams.

Iraqi goalkeeper Ahmed Ali Jaber’s red-card-prompting push on Chinese midfielder Sun Jihai resulted in the second of China’s two penalty-kick goals.

Despite the sour ending, the team is taking the loss in stride. Just months ago, few would have guessed that the team would qualify for the competition, let alone reach the top eight.

Limited resources
“I think the Iraqi team has done very well…. The resources they had were very limited compared to other teams that had a lot of money to spend lavishly,” said Talal H. Al-Khudairi, minister plenipotentiary for the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in Beijing.

“Limited resources” is a blanket euphemism for scant equipment, playing fields, players, organized matches and even coaching. 

Fields and stadiums in war-ravaged Iraq were converted to cemeteries or parking lots for the U.S. military. “Home” games had to be played in Jordan.

And after itinerating from training camp to European friendlies and back again, the newly nomadic Iraqi team suffered the loss of its coach of two years, German Bernd Stange, who fled Iraq amid growing security concerns just weeks before the Asian Cup. Iraq’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief narrowly survived an assassination attempt earlier this month.

Despite their meager grooming, the Iraqi team has been widely praised for its raw talent. Three AFP Young Player of the Year Award nominees supporting a string of unexpected wins against formidable foes.

Press reports have hailed as a “miracle” the team’s qualification for the Asian Cup and the Athens Olympics less than three months after being reinstated by the IOC. Iraq has also survived all preliminary 2006 World Cup rounds thus far.

Impressive accomplishment
But the team’s most impressive accomplishment is its defeat of Saudi Arabia on Monday. Three-time cup winner Saudi Arabia had the only perfect Asian Cup qualifying campaign of all 24 teams. The Saudis scored 31 goals in qualifiers and gave up only one.

Iraq’s 2-1 win caused Saudi Arabia’s earliest exit from the Asian Cup to date and cost the Saudi coach his job.

The match’s unexpected result can hardly be dubbed an “upset,” though. Just ask anyone who attended.

In an age where international aggression is relegated to the playing fields, international athletic events always carry political undertones.

“In Chinese football, it always goes beyond the player, beyond the ball,” said Beijing Morning Post sports writer Wang Haipeng. “In Chinese football, there is the specter of a society, including everything political.”

Take the 1985 World Cup elimination match between Hong Kong and China. China’s humiliating loss led to violent Beijing riots and the disbanding of the national team in an act of “serious self-criticism.”

Regional rivalries have also resulted in hooliganism and rioting after domestic matches over the last 15 years.

Chengdu fans adopt team
If China can burden foreign teams with cultural enmity, last week Chengdu spectators proved China can reward teams with equally fervent cultural empathy.

“China sympathizes with those who are weak. We feel sorry for Iraq because long ago China was in [similar] conditions because of Japan,” explained Wang. 

And so, in Chengdu, the Iraqi team was eagerly adopted by local fans. According to Ahmed Ismail, editor-in-chief of the Iraqi daily newspaper Azzaman Alridhi, fans took such a liking to the team that many of them even followed the team from Chengdu to Beijing.

In appreciation, the team raised a “Thank You Chengdu” banner during their victory lap after the Saudi meet.

Of course, say team representatives, the fans back home are the players’ real motivation.

Forward Younis Mahmoud has his own Web site — in English and Arabic — where doting fans from around the world offer prayers and praise for the ragtag national celebrities. Others commend the team for not distinguishing between Kurds and Arabs.

Ismail said the country’s newspapers are doing their best to lift national morale through the team as well. “Every day I call and send faxes to every sports newspaper in Iraq, not just my own,” he gushed.

And the players aren’t the only heroes. “We also think it is good for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi nation that our coach [newly appointed Adnan Hamd] is Iraqi,” said Ismail. “He is like a father to them, to the team and the country.”

No sympathy Friday night
But the adoration awarded to the Iraqi team at home and in Chengdu was not to be found at Friday night’s game.

While vendors congested the streets and subway stations around the Beijing Workers’ Stadium with flags, flashing noisemakers, and event T-shirts (each vendor claimed to sell the “official” version), each and every product was a bright, glistening, communist red.

Fans came from all around the country to see national team, not to pity the Iraqis, however pitiable their home situation might be, said one vendor, surnamed Li.

“Yes, we have sympathy, but they are still our competition,” agreed 12-year-old Dong Ji from Hebei, who proudly booed during the Iraqi national anthem.

Aziz Ahdeyb, head of the Iraqi delegation, insisted that despite unloving fans and “unfair” referee calls, “this was good experience for the team. They are still young.… This will help them at [Athens].”

The team will regroup for a few days at home in Iraq before heading to the Olympics.

And whatever Beijingers’ attitudes, the international athletic community is still supportive. The Iraqi Olympic soccer team will be joined by Iraqi boxing, judo, swimming, track, tae kwon do, and weightlifting athletes, and not because they have met qualifying standards — they have not — but because the IOC knows a little something about nation-building.