- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

THESSALONIKI, Greece — The Iraqi soccer team’s improbable run at an Olympic gold medal ended last night with a 3-1 semifinal loss to Paraguay. But the Iraqis still have a chance for a bronze, which would be their war-weary nation’s first medal in 44 years.

Paraguay made history of its own, getting two goals from Jose Cardozo and one from Fredy Bareiro to advance to Saturday’s gold medal game against Argentina, a 3-0 winner over Italy. Gold or silver, it will be the first Olympic medal of any sort for Paraguay.

Iraq and Italy will play for the bronze Friday night.

“It was the will of God,” said Iraq’s coach, Adnan Hamad. “We had lots of chances, but it did not happen for us.”

Just qualifying for the Olympics was a feat for the Iraqis, who have been unable to play home games since war began in March 2003. They clinched a berth in May, just three months after their country was reinstated by the International Olympic Committee.

The team’s first-round victories over Portugal and Costa Rica and quarterfinal win over Australia enchanted fans worldwide and gave beleaguered Iraqi citizens a rare cause for unified jubilation. Players said they were inspired by the support from home but also sobered by knowledge of their compatriots’ hardships.

The Iraqis played with pluck, forcing Paraguay goalkeeper Diego Barreto to make several acrobatic saves. But they could not contain Cardozo, at 34 one of the oldest players in the tournament.

Cardozo, a forward for Toluca in the Mexican League, opened the scoring at the 17th minute, taking a pass off his chest and, as an Iraqi defender tugged his jersey, angling a low shot into the corner past goalkeeper Nour Sabri.

“That had a big influence” Hamad said. “My players wanted very much to win, but that first goal let them down.”

Cardozo scored again 34 minutes into the half, ricocheting a shot off Sabri’s leg into the net after the Iraqi defense relaxed, believing Cardozo would be called offsides.

Hamad insisted Cardozo was indeed offsides. “We saw it on the video,” he said.

Iraq had its best chance of the game shortly before Cardozo’s second goal, when midfielder Qusai Munir forced Paraguay goalie Diego Barreto to make a diving fingertip save.

Iraq applied intense pressure early in the second half, but Paraguay put the game out of reach on a counterattack. Sabri made a diving save, but the ball rebounded off the post into play, and Bareiro hammered home the close-range shot over the goalie’s head in the 68th minute.

Even down 3-0, the Iraqis persisted, and finally broke through in the 83rd minute. Emad Mohammed slid a pass through the mostly effective Paraguay defense, and Razzaq Farhan beat Baretto with the shot.

The Paraguay fans on hand to celebrate were far outnumbered by hundreds of Iraqis, many of them expatriates living in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. They began their chants, songs and drum beats more than an hour before the game, and thrust their arms into the air in salute when their national anthem — “My Country” — played before the kickoff.

A bronze medal won by an Iraqi weightlifter in 1960 is the only medal in the country’s history.

In remarks to reporters over the past week, Hamad criticized the U.S. occupation of Iraq and blamed the devastation in his country on President Bush — who is taking credit for Iraq’s return to the Olympics in his re-election advertising.

Officials running yesterday’s post-match news conference sought to limit non-soccer questions, but Hamad did manage to appeal for the release of an Italian journalist held by kidnappers in Iraq. Unprompted, the coach then elaborated on his feelings toward Americans.

“We have nothing against the American people, even though our country is destroyed,” he said. “We are sad, for sure, that some of our women and children were killed.”

In Iraq, yesterday was another day of violence as well as soccer mania. As fans prepared to watch the late-night game, U.S. and Iraqi troops were battling militants in the holy city of Najaf, and bombers attacked the convoys of two Cabinet ministers.

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