Vol. 5 Num 64 Fri. July 30, 2004  

AFC Aisan Cup, China 2004
Iraq still weeps

Iraq's war-weary footballers were struggling to keep their minds on Friday's Asian Cup quarter-final with China after the latest explosion of bloodshed in their shattered homeland.

More than 120 people were killed and dozens injured on Wednesday in a series of attacks across Iraq, one of the worst days of violence since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime last year.

News of the escalating death toll left Iraq's players in shock at their team hotel Thursday, anxiously worrying about family and loved ones thousands of miles away from the Chinese capital.

"This morning at breakfast all the players were speaking about the news after watching television. They were very shocked," said Iraq coach Adnan Hamd.

"All the players worry about their families because of the situation in Iraq. It's not a good security situation. At any moment maybe something could happen -- the bombing, the terror, the American army."

Iraq reached the Asian Cup and next month's Olympics after seeing sports facilities across the country devastated and being forced to play all their qualifying matches away from home.

They even had to share a training pitch with grazing sheep after Baghdad's only proper football stadium was used by the US military to park tanks and armoured vehicles.

"You know the situation in Iraq -- you know what war means for any country," Hamd said. "We had many problems to prepare the team for the Asian Cup. We don't have a good field, we don't have a stadium."

The fact that Iraq's qualifying games all took place in neighbouring Jordan, also meant that the team had to take a gruelling 10-hour coach journey through lawless bandit country when travelling to their matches.

Since overcoming the various hurdles to qualify for China and Athens, Iraq -- who are fielding their Under-23 side in both sports events -- have gone from strength to strength.

Hamd, who replaced coach Bernd Stange on the eve of the Asian Cup after the German resigned citing deteriorating security conditions in Iraw, said his team were determined to try and bring some cheer to their compatriots.

"The players want to do something for our country at this time," said Hamd. "Iraqis love football. When the national team play all the people watch television and are happy when we win.

"It's very important for us and the players to make our people happy, to try and forget some of their problems," said Hamd, who said his team's 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia on Monday had been rapturously received back home.

"People were very happy, shooting into the air and everything," he said.

SCENES FROM THE MEDIEVAL AGE: An Iraqi Olympic Committee official shows a torture mask at al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad on July 28. The device was reportedly used by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, president of the Iraqi Olympic Committee during his father's regime, to punish athletes, especially football players, whose performance failed to meet his expectations. PHOTO: AFP