Iraq will face Italy for bronze medal
THESSALONIKI, Greece -- The chance for Olympic gold is gone for Iraq's overachieving soccer team, but its players emerged from a semifinal loss with their pride intact and hopes still alive for a bronze medal to delight their beleaguered fans at home.
More experienced, more opportunistic Paraguay ended Iraq's improbable run with a 3-1 victory Tuesday night and advanced 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; for Iraq, it would be the first medal since 1960 and only the second ever.
"We missed a lot of opportunities, but Paraguay was better on this day," said Iraq's coach, Adnan Hamad. "Now we'll try to win the bronze -- a success of that magnitude will be uplifting for our country in its difficult situation."
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 war-weary 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, outshooting Paraguay 21-16 and forcing goalkeeper Diego Barreto to make several acrobatic saves. But they could not contain Jose 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 him down by his jersey, angling a low shot into the corner past Iraqi 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.
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 Fredy 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 substitute Razzaq Farhan beat Baretto with the shot.
Winning coach Carlos Jara was delighted his team had assured Paraguay of its first-ever medal.
"It's all the more important succeeding in the country that gave birth to the Olympics," he said.
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.
Hamad, in remarks to reporters over the past week, had 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 Tuesday's post-match news conference sought to limit nonsoccer 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, or any other people, even though our country is destroyed," he said. "We are sad, for sure, that some of our women and children were killed."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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