One last chance

THESSALONIKI, Greece – The song is "My Country." It is relatively short, contains no words and was composed by a man named Lewis Zanbaka a little over a year ago, post-Saddam Hussein.

The dream, the improbable, heartwarming dream of these Olympics, was that on Saturday morning at Olympic Stadium in Athens that song, the Iraqi national anthem, would be played. The Iraqi flag would be raised highest of them all, and 18 diverse players from a divided, war-torn country would stand together with gold hanging from their necks.

That part of the dream ended here in northern Greece on Tuesday, August 24th. Paraguay beat Iraq 3-1 in soccer's Olympic semifinal, eliminating them from gold medal contention.

But when Iraq came to these Games, it wasn't about winning it all. It was about playing, competing, showing themselves and the world that there's more to Iraq than just violence on CNN. No one expected this much out of this team.

And while the dream, the improbable, heartwarming dream of these Olympics is gone, there is still a chance for the flag to flap at a medal ceremony.

Friday, Iraq will meet Italy for the bronze. A win would earn the nation's first Olympic medal of any kind in 44 years and only its second ever.

That would be plenty.

"For us it really is a good achievement to play for the third place and try to win the bronze medal," said Iraq coach Adnan Hamad. "Under our circumstances and our difficulties in Iraq, I think this is a good achievement for our own team and the Iraqi [people]."

The Olympic soccer tournament won't end perfectly for Iraq, but it should still end proudly, no matter what happens Friday.

This team was sports at its unifying best – not just in Iraq, but also throughout the world, where this unheralded group won over fans and showed what their country is capable of.

Unfortunately, in small but growing ways, it had become sports at its worst, too. This team represents possibilities, not politics, but the Iraqis found themselves on all sides of all sorts of debates.

This team somehow was used both by the Bush administration and those opposed to the Bush administration, by pro-war constituencies and anti-war ones, by the new Iraqi government and rebels fighting the new Iraqi government.

All at the same time.

The truth is they are all wrong. There was no black and white here, just a beacon of hope emerging from a big mush of grey.

Over the last 13 days I attended four games in person and interviewed team officials, players and more than three-dozen fans, from current Iraqis to expats. I discovered no more consensuses on politics, President Bush, or Iraq's future than on an episode of "Crossfire."

I heard the coach rip America and the president of Iraq's Olympic committee praise it. I spoke with fans who had lost loved ones to American military action and fans who had lost them to Saddam.

Players would say anything, although mostly they all wanted to talk soccer.

Out of this maelstrom of opinion, people are cherrypicking statements to further their agendas, to claim ownership.

The best thing about this team is that is no one owns it, because everyone does.

The players, a blend of Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, played together. The coach and the Olympic committee president disagreed about the American presence in Iraq but hugged after victories. The fans cheered and chanted for the team even if they disagreed about the best path for their nation.

The beauty here was undeniable. From tough circumstances, a country that needs all the hope and happiness it can get, emerged a persevering group that delivered. For a nation that needs unity, this soccer team was a unifying force.

This was good. This remains good.

There was nothing more to it than that, no matter what people try to say.

The dream of "My Country," of the flag flying highest of the three at Saturday's medal ceremony, of the gold, the improbable, heartwarming dream of these Olympics, is over.

But the flag can still fly. A medal is still winnable.

There is one last chance for political grandstanders on all sides to step back and appreciate it.