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Wednesday, August 11, 2004
For Iraq, no problems or politics on pitch

Associated Press

PATRAS, Greece -- He doesn't dare turn off his cell phone.

Not while leading practice. Not during team meetings. Not even during the matches that gave Iraq's soccer team an improbable trip to the Olympics.

It's all about the call that Adnan Hamad hopes he never gets: that violence has spilled into his Baghdad neighborhood and his wife and four children are in trouble.

"Things are so crazy, so difficult in Iraq now. I just keep telling my kids to stay inside. It's hard to keep your mind on why we are here,'' said Hamad after taking his team through drills in tar-blistering heat in the western port of Patras, where Iraq will meet Portugal on Thursday in the opening match for both teams.

"I just don't have the words to describe how hard things have been.''

But they come -- in sharp, uncluttered sentences. And to listen to the former Iraqi national team star is to open a different window on the attitudes inside the post-Saddam Olympic delegation.

Leaders of Iraq's revived Olympic committee praised the nations that brought the country "freedom'' and insisted the world's media is ignoring the good news about the recovery from the U.S.-led war. Hamad retorts: "America destroyed my country.''

"There are bandits and violence. There is no law. ... What will America do with us? What do they want?'' continued Hamad, who safely rode out the war with his family. "It's all very sad.''

Last month, Iraq's Olympic chiefs displayed torture devices -- including whips and a medieval-style cage with metal spikes -- they claimed were used by Saddam Hussein's late son, Odai, to punish disgraced athletes.

Hamad, who coached Iraq's national soccer team to victory in the West Asian Championship in 2002, plays down such allegations.

"I was fired once as coach of a national team. I lived. I was even brought back,'' said Hamad, 43. "I can't say I know anyone who was tortured. Maybe it happened. But I don't know about it and I've been around Iraqi (soccer) for a long time.''

But all the Iraqi sports officials in Greece are united on one point. Success could be an important unifying and uplifting moment for the shattered country. The soccer team -- the core of Iraq's 25-member athletic contingent -- is seen to have the best chance of making a mark.

"It's more than sports for us,'' Hamad said. "We are trying to show the world what the Iraqi people can do. We know our responsibilities and they are very big in this difficult time.''

But Iraq has so far found a way.

In May, underdog Iraq clinched an Olympic soccer berth just three months after being reinstated by the International Olympic Committee. For the first time in months, the gunfire in Iraq was in celebration. Iraqi defender Ahmed Alwan described it as "a crazy joy.''

Why not? Cynics said just the idea of striving for the Olympics was over the top. Training was often abandoned or rescheduled because of street clashes, blackouts or roadblocks. Players' salaries were cut in half to divert cash to more pressing reconstruction work. Iraq's "home'' matches were played in neighboring Jordan because no opponents would go to Baghdad.

Then the German coach who got them this far quit. Bernd Stange said in July that the fears about his safety made it impossible to continue. Hamad took over -- and the surprises didn't stop.

Iraq reached the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup that included a 2-1 win over regional soccer power Saudi Arabia. The run was a welcome distraction from the daily anxieties in many places in Iraq.

"God willing, we will make the Iraqi people proud,'' said the team captain, midfielder Abdul Wahab Labid, who plays in Iran. "We have -- how do you call it? -- spirit. Iraq has many, many problems these days. We can maybe make them forget this for a while.''

Practice was ending. Players -- wilted from the heat -- gulped bottled water. Other teams, including Iraq's first opponent Portugal, are followed by a media entourage from home. No one was there to watch the Iraqis except some Olympic minders, police and the custodial staff of the training field -- the stadium of a local club crammed into a neighborhood of apartment blocks in central Patras.

The seats are painted the colors of the little Panahaiki team: red, white and black. These also are the main colors of the Iraqi flag.

"Nice,'' said Abdulhakik Ahmed, a member of the team's technical staff.

He took a long drag on a cigarette and then hacked a serious smokers' cough. A stadium worker brought him some water. The worker asked about the war. Greeks overwhelming opposed it -- with the government going so far as to cancel school one day to give students a chance to join protest marches.

"Please, please no politics,'' Ahmed said. "Just sports and sports dreams.''

Around the corner, an office is filled with posters of Greek soccer teams. The newest one is the national team, which beat 100-to-1 odds to win the European Championship last month.

"I know about it,'' Ahmed said. "Maybe there's some luck here in Greece for us."