Iraq improves to 2-0 in Games

Updated: August 15, 2004, 9:43 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The resilient Iraqis are making the most of their return to the Olympics.

They defeated Costa Rica 2-0 Sunday night in a soccer game that was temporarily halted when jubilant fans ran onto the field. The Iraqis second straight victory put them in the quarterfinals, quite an achievement for a team that can't play games at home because of war.

Iraq was not expected to qualify for the Olympic tournament, much less open with victories against Portugal and Costa Rica. The country last qualified for the Olympics at the 1988 Seoul Games and hasn't been in the quarterfinals since the 1980 Moscow Games.

Its success in Athens has provided a rare bright spot for Iraqis around the world.

"We're delighted by the victories because we know what it means to our people," Iraq coach Adnan Hamad said through an interpreter.

In the 67th minute, Hawar Mulla Mohammed slammed a bouncing ball into the net from 18 yards out to put Iraq ahead, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Mohammed jubilantly sprinted around the endline and up the sideline, where he was mobbed by teammates.

Within moments, a couple of Iraqi fans jumped out of the crowd to join the celebration. About two dozen others followed, running around the field. Police and security personnel took about three minutes to clear the field of fans and debris.

Shortly after the ensuing kickoff, Mohammed took the ball down the left side and crossed it to Mahdi Karim, who scored on a header -- prompting several fans to storm the field again.

One jumped around Costa Rica's goal and tossed an Iraqi flag into the net. Another ran to midfield and hugged an Iraqi player. After another short delay, the game resumed.

Iraqi Olympic Committee president Ahmed Al Samarri did not approve of the disruptions, but he understood them.

"They were very excited," he said. "Especially for the Iraqi people, they miss such happiness."

In May, Iraq clinched an Olympic soccer berth just three months after the country was reinstated by the International Olympic Committee following a nine-month absence. Iraq's Olympic Committee was previously run by Saddam Hussein's son, Odai, who tortured players when they fell out of favor.

Two months after qualifying, the team's German coach, Bernd Stange, resigned, saying authorities told him to leave for his safety.

He was replaced by his assistant, Hamad, who coached Iraq's national soccer team to victory in the West Asian Championship in 2002 and played on the national team during the early 1980s.

In July, Iraq reached the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup, a run that included a 2-1 win over regional power Saudi Arabia. It was Iraq's first win over the Saudis since 1988.

Against Costa Rica, the referee added six minutes to the end of the second half, mostly to make up for time lost because of the fans. After the second Iraq goal, police and security called in reinforcements to guard the stands on either sideline, where most of the 12,153 fans were seated.

After the final whistle, the Iraqi players linked arms and jogged toward their adoring throng. Some fans were able to make it past the police to embrace players.

"The difficulties that all Iraqis have endured, especially over the last year and a half with the occupation -- we fully recognize what we're doing as ambassadors for our country," Hamad said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press