More than just a game to battle-weary Iraqis

BEIJING: For Iraq, the Asian Cup is not just about football. It is about restoring pride and helping to bring some comfort to people in the war-ravaged country. 

Iraq's footballers have battled severe hardship to reach the Asian Cup quarter-finals but another day of death and destruction at home has brought their mission into even sharper focus. 

More than 120 people were killed across Iraq on Wednesday, including 70 in a suicide car bomb attack north of Baghdad, news of which upset the Iraq players in China. 

“The players were very shocked,” said Iraq coach Adnan Hamd. “All the players were talking about it at breakfast today. They worry for the situation in Iraq, about their families. 

“At any moment, there is another bombing, more terror. The players want to do something for our country.” 

SAFE HANDS: Iraq's goalkeeper Noor Sabri saves a shot during a training session in Beijing on Wednesday. The Iraqis face China in a quarter-final match at the Asian Cup tournament in Beijing today. - Reuterspic

Iraq defied extreme odds to reach the Asian Cup amid the escalating violence in the country. They had to play their “home” qualifiers in neutral Jordan because of security fears. 

They even had to share a training pitch with grazing sheep in Baghdad after the US military converted the main stadium into a base to park their tanks after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. 

“You know what war means for every country. People are destroying things and the security is very difficult,” said Hamd. 

“That is the real situation now in Iraq.” 

His war-weary players no longer answer to Iraq's former national Olympic committee chief and head of the soccer team Uday Hussein, violent son of the toppled Iraqi dictator, who used to beat the soles of their feet or lock them up for days if they lost. 

The Iraq team has had a huge impact at the Asian Cup and Chinese fans have taken them to their hearts. 

After they stunned bitter rivals Saudi Arabia 2-1 to eliminate the three-times champions, the Iraqi players unfurled a giant banner written in Chinese thanking the fans. 

The team faces another another mammoth task when they take on hosts China in Beijing today. Hamd insisted, however, that his players would not be overawed. 

“China are a very good team but we have a little bit of confidence now,” said Hamd. “We are doing this for Iraq, because we know all Iraqis love football. All Iraqis watch TV and they are so happy when we win.” 

Hamd vowed that the bloodshed in Iraq would make his players only more determined to progress in the tournament. “At any time the American army can close the roads, close the city, sometimes shoot people in the street,” he said. 

“But it is our country and it is very important for the players to make people happy and to forget their problems in this difficult situation in Iraq.” – Reuters  

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