No one's cheering for Team USA

Updated: August 24, 2004, 12:17 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- Much to the anger of the athletes involved, President Bush is using the Iraqi Olympic team's success in his re-election campaign, essentially saying if it hadn't been for him, the country and its soccer team wouldn't be here.

Emad Mohammed
APThe Iraqi soccer team has reached the semifinals.

And in a related development, that "independent" group of Vietnam swiftboat veterans has released another attack ad on John Kerry, saying that if it hadn't been for him, the U.S. men's basketball team wouldn't be here, either.

Funny, isn't it, how things turn out? The surprising Iraqi soccer team is the official "Coming Soon To A Multi-Plex Near You" story of these Olympics, the team everyone is cheering. And then there's the U.S. men's basketball team. Far from the days of the first Dream Team in 1992, when even opponents begged for autographs, there might have been more fans rooting against the United States in Saturday's Lithuania game than actually live in Lithuania.

"We don't expect the crowd to be on our side the whole tournament," U.S. guard Allen Iverson said after Sunday's practice. "We expect everything to be against us. And that is how it's been so far. It's been tough on us, but having the USA across our chest, everybody wants us to lose."

You know how some American fans mourn the good old Olympic days when we could root against the Soviet Bloc teams and look down on their athletes as chemically enhanced, government-controlled ogres? Well, guess what. With the BALCO scandal, the untold millions of dollars invested in the team and our athletes' lucrative salaries and endorsement packages, that's exactly how we must look now to a lot of smaller, poorer countries. Which is to say, everyone.

It's only natural. Everyone loves an underdog and everyone hates the overwhelming favorite (except for Yankees fans).

"The crowd doesn't affect the game," forward Richard Jefferson said. "People keep asking me this and that. If you are playing against 14,000 people screaming against you does it matter if you are in Greece or New York or in Boston? It has no effect on the game whatsoever."

Right. The United States can lose all on its own.

After struggling through the pre-Olympic tournament, the U.S. basketball team opened the Olympics with a humiliating 19-point loss to Puerto Rico, had to rally to beat Greece and Australia, then got beat by Lithuania (it plays Angola next before the medal round begins). In other words, they've trailed everyone, losing as many games here as the United States did in the previous 15 Olympics combined.

After the United States played listlessly against Puerto Rico, coach Larry Brown went out of his way to emphasize that a coach can't "coach effort." Which is odd. I always thought motivation was precisely a coach's No. 1 priority.

Iraq's soccer team, however, has had no such motivation issues.

While the U.S. basketball team has $678 million in combined contracts (which doesn't count their endorsement deals) and is staying on the Queen Mary, the Iraqis overcame almost unimaginable challenges to reach here. When Uday Hussein was in charge of the country's Olympic program, the players faced routine torture for poor play. The continued fighting in Iraq forced the team to train and play its "home" games in other countries. Even now, one of Uday's former right-hand men heads up the national soccer program. And when the Olympics end, they will return to a war-ravaged country.

Which kind of places the ordeal of playing for the Suns last season into perspective.

The Iraqis' success -- they went 3-1 in qualifying games and are one win from a medal -- has been so surprising that a Bush campaign spot shows flags from Iraq and Afghanistan while a voice says, "At this Olympics there will be two more free nations and two fewer terrorist regimes." But the Iraqi players told Sports Illustrated they are angry Bush is using them this way because they don't agree with his policies, conveniently ignoring that such policies are why Uday isn't torturing them anymore.

Midfielder Ahmed Manajid told SI's Grant Wahl that if he weren't playing soccer, he'd be back in his home of Fallujah fighting the coalition. "I want to defend my home. If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that mean they are terrorists?" he said. "Everyone [in Fallujah] has been labeled a terrorist. These are all lies. Fallujah people are some of the best people in Iraq."

Hmmm. That's a quote that probably won't make it into any campaign ads or into any Hollywood scripts.

It's interesting how we choose whether to root for a team or not. A dozen years ago in Barcelona, few people rooted for Iraq and many rooted against it. A dozen years ago almost everyone rooted for the U.S. basketball team and few rooted against it. Now it's just the opposite.

As Bush's father said, it's a new world order and the allegiances that last longest are the ones that matter the most. Like whether a team's jersey has Yankees or Red Sox written across its chest.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE