The Iraq Olympic soccer team stood facing its red, white and black flag and sang its moody requiem of an anthem in full voice. Then the players went out and played with more emotion than skill, and with hope as a substitute for wherewithal. Frankly, they embodied all the premature investments in and expectations of their country.
The Iraqi team will not win the Olympic gold medal, defeated in the semifinals by Paraguay, 3-1, at Kaftantzoglio Stadium, and the loss will end any discussion of fairy tales. Instead, the Iraqis will now play Italy for a bronze medal, and attention will shift back where it belongs, to their real problems. But regardless of what the Iraqis do from now on, say this about them: They won almost everything, with almost nothing.
Really, they were just a bunch of kids from war-torn stadiums with guts and heart. They were Arab and Kurd, from Fallujah and Najaf and Sadr City, carrying all the anxiety over events back home, the burning refuse and shot-up things that those city names conjure. And yet look what they've done. Their real message, the thing that's on the level about this team, is that they ignore what everyone else wants them to represent, and just play soccer. They don't belong to anyone, except themselves, when everyone wants a piece of them.
They were put in play by President Bush's reelection campaign, with an ad titled "Victory" that credits Bush with liberating Iraq and Afghanistan so they could compete in the Olympics. But it's not at all that simple, and some players reacted angrily, telling Sports Illustrated that Bush should find another way to advertise himself, and citing the destruction of their home towns. "Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign," midfielder Salih Sadir said. Head coach Adnan Hamad said, "My problems are not with the American people, they are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything."
There was a determined, if awkward, silence from Iraqi officials about Bush's use of the ad and the player response. "I haven't heard about it," said Hussein Saeed Mohammed, the head of the Iraqi soccer federation. Politics were not to be discussed. "It is Olympic principle," he added. "Anything else is separate."
In fact, the Iraqis are a complicated, convoluted mix of personal histories and sentiments and politics. The head of the Iraqi Olympic committee, Ahmed Samarrai, was exiled for years under Saddam Hussein, and had an attempt made on his life this summer. Mohammed worked under Saddam's sadistic son, Uday. Salih Sadir is from Najaf, and Ahmed Manajid is from Fallujah. And it should be noted that they expressed their objections and anti-Bush sentiments while staying in hotels paid for by the Iraqi Olympic committee, which is funded by the United States.
In the lobby of the Hyatt Regency here, security was omnipresent, from the cyclone fencing at the front gate to the metal detector at the revolving glass door and uniformed guards posted in every hallway. Plainclothesmen with radio cords hanging from their ears mingled in the lobby with the potted trees and columns. The Iraqi players passed the time by milling around the lobby or the spa in baggy green and white sweats, their athletic sandals slapping on the tile and marble.
Meanwhile, a paid "consultant" to the Iraqi Olympic committee tried to publicly discredit the Sports Illustrated story, as did a State Department spokesman appearing on ESPN. Mark Clark, an officer in the British reserves who worked for the provisional government under Paul Bremer, and who is now an adviser under contract to the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, said the players' remarks appeared to have been "engineered" by the media.
To the contrary, responds Grant Wahl, the Sports Illustrated reporter who wrote the story. "The quotes are solid," he says. The interviews were translated from Arabic to Greek to English, not an ideal situation, he admits, "but interviews are all on tape," he says. Furthermore, Wahl says, he ran into one of the Iraqi players in a hotel lobby, and the player indicated he had seen the story and gave him a thumbs up. "Internet," the player said.
Clark now backs off his accusation that the quotes may have been "engineered." But he continues to say that the story was an unfair representation of real Iraqi player feelings, and believes that such questions are insensitive. "The difficulty is that if the players are presented with a question out of the blue, then their response is going to be dictated by the manner in which the question is posed," Clark says. "They aren't sophisticated in the media and won't be able to see where the question is leading." More importantly, he says, the players may fear repercussions at home if they seem aligned with the United States. "What they face when they return to Iraq is a very, very serious security issue," Clark says. "You have to appreciate that the nature of their response is very, very complicated -- a number of players I know feel pressured to respond in a certain way to ensure their security and security of their families when they return."
So this is the liberation of the Iraqi soccer team: You're free to speak your mind but fearful of reprisals, and open to reinterpretation by public officialdom. It's complicated, isn't it? There is no easy message or easy answer to be found here.
No doubt the coalition government back home would like them to represent the "new" Iraq, one that's free of torture and corruption, an Iraq that's not particularly ethnic or too radically religious, a national icon and rallying point that's not a mosque. No doubt different people will try to use them to represent different things. But the players themselves are content to represent something much smaller. "We want to say to the world and we say to Iraqis, we [have] solved many problems," Mohammed says. "We want to put a smile on the faces of the Iraqi people."