Gunfire in Baghdad has become so commonplace that it seldom draws headlines. But on May 12 Iraqis took to the streets and fired furiously into the air because of the headlines. For the first time in 16 years the country's men's soccer team had earned a berth in the Olympics.
"It was amazing the way the news flew through this city and how everyone felt a sense of pride," says Mounzer Fatfat, an American who has worked as a senior adviser on rebuilding sports in Iraq. "Iraqis love soccer, and the fact that this team fought its way into the Olympics was something everyone rallied around. For a few hours nothing else seemed to matter."
Entering its final match in the regional qualifying tournament, in Amman, Jordan—where the squad played "home" games because no opponents would go to Baghdad—the Iraqi team seemed unlikely to need reservations for Athens. Even after the Iraqis beat Saudi Arabia 3-1, their only hope to advance was for Kuwait and Oman to play to a scoreless tie. That's exactly what happened, filling the streets of Baghdad with cheering crowds. When the team returned the next day, the celebration continued.
No team in these Games has traveled a more difficult road than Iraq's soccer squad. For years team members were tortured at the whim of president Saddam Hussein's son Uday, who ran the country's Olympic committee. (Uday's actions led the IOC to suspend Iraq's membership from May 2003 until February.) Even now the team is not immune to the violence racking the country. In early July, after threats from terrorists that he would be killed if he set foot again on Iraqi soil, Bernd Stange of Germany resigned as Iraq's national team coach. Though Stange had helped guide the club to Athens, he was not the Olympic coach; that job is held by an Iraqi, Adnan Hamd, who will be on the sideline on Aug. 12, the day before the opening ceremonies, when the Iraqis take the pitch at Pampeloponnisiako Stadium outside Athens to face Portugal.
Seven other Iraqis are expected to compete, in boxing, judo, swimming, track, taekwondo and weightlifting. They were invited by the IOC, even though they did not meet qualifying standards. "The IOC wanted to make sure the new Iraq had athletes in Athens carrying the nation's flag and telling the world that Iraq is back," Fatfat says. "And they wanted to make sure that one of those athletes was a woman [sprinter Ala' Hikmat will run in the 100 and 200 meters], so that we can start encouraging young girls to get into sports."
Raad Abbas Rasheed, who is entered in the taekwondo competition, can't wait for the Games to begin, even though he—like the rest of the contingent—has no chance at a medal. "It will be a proud moment when I represent Iraq in Athens," he says. "This will not be true just for me, but for all the athletes who suffered under Saddam's regime. Athens is a wide gate to a new life for all of us."