THE PLANK JUNE 7, 2008
It's been a year of ups and downs for the Iraqi national soccer team. Last summer, you may recall, their improbable victory in the Asian Cup captured the hearts of soccer fans everywhere. (Well, everywhere outside of Asia, anyway--I happened to be in Seoul when Iraq beat South Korea on penalty kicks in the semifinals, and the stunned locals were not amused.) The team's success came in the face of numerous death threats and kidnappings of high-profile athletes.
Unfortunately, it's been a rockier road since. Two weeks ago, FIFA announced it was suspending the Iraqi soccer team from international competition for one year, in the wake of the Iraqi government's controversial decision to disband the nation's Olympic committee (a decision which also threatens to keep Iraqi athletes out of the Beijing Olympics). The Asian qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Cup is in full swing, so this would have made it impossible for Iraq to qualify. FIFA eventually backed down and agreed to allow Iraq to play only after receiving assurances from the government that there would be no meddling in the affairs of the national soccer team, but the whole episode left the team in turmoil.
Showing characteristic resilience, the Iraqis pulled out a major upset win today over group leaders Australia, 1-0. It was technically a home game for Iraq, but for obvious reasons had to be played in Dubai. It's not Australia's most disappointing result against a Middle Eastern team in recent memory (that would be their epic 1997 meltdown against Iran, which kept the Socceroos out of the 1998 World Cup), but it's nevertheless an unexpected and potentially costly loss to a team that had once again been counted out. Iraq still faces long odds to qualify, but could move on to the final round of Asian qualification with good performances next month against China and Qatar. Here's hoping they pull it out.
While we're on the subject of soccer, ESPN deserves major kudos for deciding to broadcast live all the matches of Euro 2008, the world's second-biggest tournament, which kicked off today. Just four years ago, even the final match was only available on Fox Soccer Channel, which most cable packages don't carry. It's a big step forward for soccer in America.