Iraqis outshining traditional powers in semis

Updated: August 23, 2004, 12:33 PM ET
Associated Press

THESSALONIKI, Greece -- Argentina vs. Italy might look like a premiere soccer matchup -- but most eyes are on a team in Tuesday's other Olympic semifinal.

Iraq has overcome unprecedented problems to get within one game of the gold medal match. It has to beat another outsider, Paraguay, to reach the final and doesn't care who it meets when it gets there.

"This success is very important for our people in Iraq,'' coach Adnan Hamad told reporters on the eve of the semifinal in Thessaloniki. "Every day we have one more win, they have more celebration. They are with us here.

"We have to try our best to win and give our people some hope to be happy, to be smiling and to celebrate like other people.''

With bombings and shootings a daily occurrence back home, Iraq's players try to use soccer to take their minds off their wartorn homeland -- but it's not easy.

"To be honest, when we are winning we are still worried about our people back home in Iraq -- their circumstances and their difficulties and the daily problem they face and all the fighting,'' Hamad said. "That's why we don't feel very happy. We don't speak about freedom. We have no freedom in Iraq under an army. This is one of the miserable things about our life. This team is all that we want to talk about.''

While Argentina's performance -- four wins, all shut outs -- suggests it could be too strong for Italy in Athens on Tuesday, the other semifinal is too close to call.

Hamad's team, which also reached the quarterfinal of the Asian Cup a month ago, started with a 4-2 victory over medal contender Portugal, then guaranteed a place in the quarterfinals by beating Costa Rica 2-0. Despite a 2-1 loss to Morocco, Iraq finished top of its group and then edged Australia 1-0 to capture a place in the semifinals.

But Paraguay knows how to score goals.

The team that knocked out Brazil during South American qualifying for the Olympics scored a 4-3 victory over Japan in its opening game and edged South Korea 3-2 in the semifinal. Fredy Bareiro scored twice against the Koreans to follow his strike in the 1-0 group victory over the Italians.

In 33-year-old Carlos Gamarra, Paraguay has the oldest player in the soccer tournament, who also was on his nation's 1992 Olympic team in Barcelona. Olympic soccer is limited to players under 23, though each country gets three exceptions to the rule.

Paraguay and Iraq have met once before in championship soccer and that was a 1-1 tie at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Argentina and Italy have met many times before and the Italians have won three World Cups to Argentina's two. But the Olympics is another matter.

While Italy's last soccer gold medal came at Berlin in 1936, Argentina has never won the Olympic title and has been runner-up twice.

Valencia defender Roberto Ayala was on the team that twice lost the lead and the 1996 final to Nigeria. Like the rest of Marcelo Bielsa's squad, he has been told to come home with the gold and nothing else.

With four wins by a combined score of 13-0, Argentina is hot favorite to win the title for the first time. Italy has been patchy at best.

Claudio Gentile's team was 2-0 down to Ghana in its opening game and fought back to tie 2-2. It beat Japan 3-2 but then lost to the Paraguay and only made it to the quarterfinal on the basis that it has scored one more goal overall than the Ghana.

Italy then labored to a 1-0 victory over Mali with AS Roma defender Cesare Bovo scoring four minutes from the end of extra time.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press