Friday, August 13, 2004

A Victory for Freedom

Congratulations to Iraq's U-23 Men's soccer team for opening play in the Olympics yesterday with a stunning 4-2 victory over heavily-favored Portugal. For the Iraqis, who weren't even expected to qualify for the games, this was an amazing result. However, for the Iraqi team and the Iraqi people, this victory was about far more than a game. As Adrian Wojnarowski has written in a terrific column for

After the Iraqis had defeated gold-medal contender Portugal 4-2 in the first round of Group D, after two players had been carried off on stretchers and the man responsible for the game-winning goal had blood gushing from a cut above his eye until they slapped that big bandage on it, this team could've stood in the middle of Pampeloponnisiako Stadium and listened to that chant all night long.

"By our souls and blood," they screamed in a native language, "we are giving life to you, Iraq."

"I never have to go to another soccer game in Iraq and see Saddam's picture all around the stadium," said Shorsh Abdullah, a 24-year-old Iraqi living in Greece as a student. He couldn't believe his eyes. His mother and father were back in Baghdad and the thought of the joy this brought everyone back there moved him beyond words.

"This was a victory for freedom," Abdullah finally said before returning to the flood of Iraqi bodies dancing and singing and hugging all the way out of the stadium. They hadn't just won a soccer game, but beat a gold-medal contender, "the best team in Europe," the Iraqi Olympic team leader declared.

Maybe there have been bigger upsets in Olympic history, but there have been few as important as this one. As much as anything, Iraqi athletes are symbols of survival for a beleaguered nation. For them, the consequences of winning and losing were the most grave on the planet. The Iraqi athletes under Uday Hussein, minister of sport for his father Saddam's dictatorship, had been brutalized beyond belief. Nowhere did losing have the consequences they did in Iraq. Imagine those journeys back to Baghdad after losses, when Iraqi athletes had to consider the horrors awaiting them in the twisted mind of Uday.

When teams lost and players made mistakes, they could expect to pay a price of pain and suffering through the most unthinkable of tortures. They were beaten and burned with cigarettes and shocked with cattle prodders and sliced with razors digging into flesh. They were dragged through the streets bare-backed and rolled in sand to infect the bloody wounds. They were thrown into prison cells and raped.

Uday always figured: If the rest of society sees our regime doing this to great and popular athletes, ordinary Iraqis will ask themselves; What chance would I have stepping out of line?

After all that, they were somehow still standing on Thursday night in Greece, still standing a world away from the horrors of Hussein's holy hell.

It's still far too early to speak of a "Miracle on Grass". Still, the Iraqis, with games against Morocco and Costa Rica to come, are now in excellent position to advance to the second round. I wish them luck, and will be behind them 100%. They, and the Iraqi people, deserve some happiness.


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