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Winning Iraqi team rare cause for joy

Tom Perry | August 24, 2004 09:59 IST

When Iraq's Olympic soccer side beat Costa Rica nine days ago en route to their semi-final clash with Paraguay later on Tuesday, Hussein Allawi jumped so high with joy he cut his hand in the ceiling fan.

"You can feel the enthusiasm," said Allawi, proudly pointing at the cut. "We need more joy to help ease our worries," said the 30-year-old, whose shop in Baghdad was rocked by a car bomb a few weeks ago.

Iraq's unexpected progress in the Olympic soccer competition has given Iraqis a rare distraction from the bullets and bombs that cast a shadow over their lives.

Baghdad coffee shop owner Qasem Abd has bought extra supplies of soft drinks in anticipation of a full house for Tuesday's match. God willing, the place won't be big enough," he said.

His cafe was packed when Iraq beat Australia 1-0 to reach the semi- final. "It's been a long time since I've seen that kind of atmosphere," he said. The victory was greeted by celebratory gunfire that lit up the Baghdad skyline.

"You can't describe it. It's as if all the problems were over, even if only for an hour," Abd said. "It's a temporary joy. At any moment a shell could fall on us and kill us."

His patrons, who usually puff water pipes while chatting or watching television, have no time for smoking when the Iraqi soccer team is on the field. "They feel as if they are playing," he said.

Baghdad residents, who suffer from daily power shortages, are planning ahead to make sure electricity cuts do not interrupt the game.

Many will crowd into coffee shops or homes with private generators to avoid any disruption to their viewing.

"The most important thing is that there's electricity," said shop owner Waat Faar.

Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, once tortured Iraq's footballers for playing badly. Government employee Abu Ali said the team's success showed what Iraqis could achieve without the fear of a beating.

"It shows that terror doesn't bring any result," the 63-year-old said.

In the run up to the Olympics, the Iraqi side had to play home matches in Jordan and train alongside grazing sheep in Baghdad.

"Their success helps us to think the Iraqi people can win in the same way -- that we can overcome our problems and win," Abu Ali said.

Iraq's only previous Olympic medal was a weightlifting bronze at the 1960 Rome Games. "Everyone will be proud of them," Abu Ali said. "Even if they lose."

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