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Bruised and battered Iraq eye football gold

Iraqis may have a lot of contradictions after war but one thing that still unites them is football.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2006 17:21 IST

Iraq's footballers face Uzbekistan in the Asian Games quarter-finals on Saturday determined to bring relief to their war-torn country and provide themselves with an escape route to foreign leagues.

Currently only one of the squad, striker Yousuf Khalef, plays outside Iraq enjoying the rewards of a professional contract with Al Gharrafa in Doha.

Now his teammates want to secure similar rewards by reaching the final in Iraq's first appearance at an Asian Games in 20 years.

"Now Iraq is free and people can leave and return to Iraq freely," said sports minister Jassem Mohammed Jaffar who worries, however, that a huge exodus of players could have serious consequences.

"Although there are other priorities as well, I think we should offer the Iraqi players more."

Iraq have been playing matches in Doha for three weeks.

Obliged to pre-qualify, they opened their campaign with a 2-0 win over Singapore on November 18, 2006 and then drew 0-0 with Syria.

That put them into the tournament proper where they overcame an opening 1-0 loss to China to beat Oman 2-0 and Malaysia 4-0.

"This will make the Iraqi people rejoice," said coach Yahya Manhel.

"Football is the biggest sport in Iraq. Men, women and children all love it. There are many things which Iraqis disagree about, but sport unites them."

Holders Iran face China having endured a nightmare campaign which started under a cloud when their team was banned by FIFA because of government interference in the federation's work before the suspension was lifted.

"It's difficult to defend titles," said Iran's Brazilian coach Rene Simoes.

"All teams try and beat us. But that's good motivation for the team. We have prepared ourselves for this problem and our training has prepared us to defend the title."

North Korea, who ended Japan's hopes of making it through, face South Korea.

"It would have been better if we had met in the final," said North Korea coach Ri Jong Man.

"Unfortunately we have to play them in the quarter-finals."

"We are used to the grounds here and we are more prepared, the players are in better condition. We can aim for gold."

Saturday's other last eight match will be the best-attended with hosts Qatar taking on Thailand.

Saturday's quarter-finals:

Thailand v Qatar

China v Iran

Uzbekistan v Iraq

South Korea v North Korea