IRAKLION, Greece – The Iraqi soccer team is one victory away from an improbable trip to the podium.
Emad Mohammed's (search) 12-yard bicycle kick in the 64th minute gave Iraq a 1-0 victory over Australia in the quarterfinals Saturday, putting the invaded, war-torn country in position to compete for only its second Olympic medal in the nation's history.
Iraq will play either Paraguay or South Korea in the semifinals in Thessaloniki (search) on Tuesday. Even a loss in the semis would put the Iraqis in the bronze medal game, where they could become the first athletes from their country to win a medal since Abdul Wahid Aziz's weightlifting bronze in Rome in 1960.
Two more victories would mean a gold medal and a promised $25,000 reward for each player from the recently reinstated Iraqi Olympic Committee (search). The committee had conceded it may need sponsors to come through with the cash, considering there are 18 players on the roster.
The goal came on a corner kick. Mahdi Karim sacrificed his body to head the ball to Mohammed, who flipped himself upside down to put his shot inside the right post. Karim was injured on the play and lay on the field for a couple of minutes, but he returned to the game.
The goal set off jubilant celebrations among more than 1,000 Iraqi supporters, hundreds of whom had been chanting and waving flags since an hour before kickoff.
The fact that Iraq even qualified for the Athens Games (search) was a remarkable achievement. They clinched a berth in May, just three months after the country was reinstated by the International Olympic Committee following a nine-month absence. The national Olympic committee was previously run by Saddam Hussein's son, Odai, who tortured players when they fell out of favor.
Two months after qualifying, the team's German coach, Bernd Stange, resigned because of safety reasons and was replaced by his assistant and former Iraqi player, Adnan Hamad. The team could not play any home games because of the war and had virtually no funding.
The Australians were the hard-luck victims of the Iraqis' exuberant play. The Socceroos had the better scoring chances throughout the match, even though they played without three regular starters. Defender Craig Moore and midfielders Ahmad Elrich and Tim Cahill were suspended after receiving two yellow cards in the first round. Elrich and Cahill had accounted for three of Australia's six first-round goals.
Australia actually put the ball in the net in the 48th minute when Anthony Danze knocked in a rebound after two excellent saves by goalkeeper Nour Sabri, but the play was ruled offsides. Sabri then made a leaping save on John Aloisi's header in the 59th, and Australia's Luke Wilkshire hit the crossbar in the 66th.
Iraq's Razzaq Farhan had a chance to make it 2-0 after a nifty move around Adrian Madaschi in the penalty area, but Farhan pushed his shot wide.
Iraq advanced out of the first round with upsets over Portugal and Costa Rica before losing to Morocco. The soccer team last qualified for the Olympics at the 1988 Seoul Games and hadn't been in the quarterfinals since Moscow in 1980.