Iraq begins rebuilding national soccer squad

Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq Weakened by years of neglect and intimidated by an oppressive government, Iraq is getting a soccer team back together to chase an improbable dream qualifying for next year's Olympics.

Practice will commence this week,'' assistant coach Adnan Hamad said in a broadcast carried by Voice of New Iraq, a radio station controlled by the U.S.-led coalition.

In war's aftermath, the job of rebuilding the country's sports infrastructure is slowly beginning. Athletes who have been living in Europe are preparing to return home in the next few days after winning the support of the Kuwait-based Olympic Council of Asia on Tuesday.

It is not going to be easy,'' said Naji Ghazi, a runner and one of the seven members of the Free Iraq Olympic Group.

Iraq, once among the most powerful teams in Asia, has a hard road ahead in Olympic qualifying, which is limited to players under 23. But that hasn't tempered Hamad's determination. The team disintegrated during the run-up to the war, but Hamad urged the players to show up at Baghdad's al-Karkh stadium to begin practicing for international competition.

We will train four times a week to be ready for the matches,'' Hamad said. Iraq will be fully prepared for the Olympic qualifiers.''

A friendly match between two popular teams, al-Zawra and Police, was delayed twice in the past week and now is tentatively scheduled for Friday. It will be the first professional match in Iraq since the war.

Iraq's soccer organization used to be run by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Odai. There have been reports that Odai, who also oversaw Iraq's Olympic Committee, tortured players who failed to perform to his standards. Ahmed Radi, Iraq's best-known soccer player in recent years, said he was imprisoned three times on Odai's orders.

Last month, the Asian Football Confederation first postponed Iraq's qualifier against Vietnam for the 2004 Athens Olympics because of the war and later ruled that Vietnam would be awarded the canceled match. But it later appeared to backtrack in the face of protests from Iraq.

Bernd Stange, a German coach who manages the Iraqi team, has pleaded with the Malaysia-based AFC to reschedule the qualifier and allow Iraq a chance at the Olympics.

Despite the war, Iraq remains in the top-five bracket of Asian football rankings, and is 53rd in FIFA's global listing. But its last success in an international tournament came at the West Asian Football Federation championship in 2002, when the team coached by Hamad beat Jordan 3-2 in the final.

FIFA has decided to dispatch a team of experts to Iraq when the situation stabilizes to ascertain the condition of stadiums and other soccer facilities. The governing body also will formulate a plan to assist Iraq in restarting its domestic leagues and prepare the national team for upcoming international tournaments.

Iraq's soccer association was founded in 1948 and joined FIFA two years later. The team took part in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, losing all three of its games but allowing only four goals.

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