THE CHEERS WERE still ringing in Iraqi striker Younis Mahmoud's ears long after he escaped the blessed chaos at Karaiskaki Stadium on Sunday. For two hours, more than 4,000 Iraqi soccer fans had grown increasingly delirious, rushing the field by the dozen after each goal, unleashing a warlike whoop that had nothing to do with any war: "Iraq! Iraq! With our blood and soul, Iraq!" Their team had qualified for the Olympic quarterfinals, beating Costa Rica 2-0 after upsetting gold medal contender Portugal 4-2. "There have been so many problems in Iraq, but now we can give something simple to my people," Mahmoud said. "I wish I was there right now to see them."
There are thousands of Iraqi exiles in Greece, and flag-waving expats took over the stadium on Sunday. Their unbridled joy was set free by players who had endured torture at the hands of Uday Hussein, who ran the Iraqi Olympic Committee for his father, Saddam (SI, March 24, 2003), from 1994 until last year's U.S.-led invasion. "I'm so proud to be an Iraqi tonight," said Bisoyn Najah, 39, who drove a tank in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to '88 and fled to Athens 10 years ago. His friend Albert Yalda, a 40-year-old Iraqi-born Canadian, couldn't contain himself: "This may be the happiest day of my life."
For a moment Iraqis everywhere could unite behind a triumphant national team composed of Shiites, Sunnis and a single Kurd--midfielder Hawar Mulla Mohammed, who scored against Costa Rica. What's more, Iraq had a home-crowd environment unlike any they had enjoyed since before the invasion. (The National Stadium in Baghdad is closed to the public, forcing Iraq to play its "home" games in Amman, Jordan, 500 miles away.) Frustrated by their nation's instability, the Iraqis played in Greece as though they'd been liberated, beating their more highly regarded foes with speed and marvelous combination passes.
The Iraqis may be on their way to the most unlikely of Olympic medals. "That is our wish," Mahmoud said. "We think anything is possible." --Grant Wahl