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Iraqis follow fortunes of national soccer team

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi National Olympic Committee member Hassan Bahriya was hoping a third bullet would come through the roof of his car Tuesday, just as two others, fired in celebration, had after the Iraqi soccer team's earlier victories in Athens.

No such luck. The Iraqi team lost to Paraguay, 3-1, and no one fired a shot near Bahriya's home in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad.

It's been a heady run for the Iraqi team—and it's not over yet. Friday, Iraq plays Italy for the bronze medal. Iraq last won a medal in 1960, a bronze for weightlifting.

"We have already won," Bahriya said after the game. "We were there."

The team's success has been a welcome respite for its fans, whose lives are surrounded by chaos that Tuesday included assassination attempts against two government ministers and continued fighting in Najaf.

"I would like to thank the players because they make the Iraqi people happy and make them laugh. That is what soccer is all about," said Haider Habib, 21.

Team members have spoken often of their worries about what's going on at home. "I feel very happy, but our happiness is not complete because of the circumstances we live under the occupation," Coach Adnan Hamed told reporters before the game. "We feel pain and anxiety when we are here and have to worry about our friends and family and the Iraqi people."

Baghdad had anticipated the game, which started at 10 p.m. local time, all day. One newspaper headline said: "Iraq has a date with history." Bahriya called the team "Iraq's Dream Team."

By kickoff, crowds had gathered around sets at restaurants, stores, homes and, of course, cafes. About 50 men gathered at Al Ezawee cafe, smoking and leaning forward to get a better view of the single 18-inch television that rested on top of a kabob stand.

The crowd was mostly quiet, studying the game on the television screen. Iraq shot toward Paraguay's goal nearly twice as often as its opponent did. Each shot brought a hopeful roar from the crowd.

With every miss, deflated fans sank their heads into their hands. The humming of the generator was the only steady noise.

But the realities of life in post-war Iraq are never far behind. About 25 minutes into the match, the generator ran out of gas. The fans ran across the street to a street vendor and watched the game there while the cafe owner, Ali Haider, 24, emptied gas out of his car to restore power.

Ten minutes later, the power came back and the crowd ran back across the street.

U.S. soldiers beefed up their patrols, driving by the cafe every 15 minutes.

By halftime, with the score 2 to 0, fans began dissecting the game. Some were hoping Qusai Muneer, a midfielder and fan favorite, would save the game. Others thought it would come down to penalty kicks.

Then Paraguay scored a third goal, and some fans began to leave.

Still, Bahriya remained hopeful, noting that the team played a better second half and that that bodes well for Friday's match-up for the bronze medal. And perhaps another bullet through the roof of his car.

"There will be a celebration," he said optimistically. "They will shoot again."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-OLYMPICS


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