SOCCER Italy nips Iraq 1-0 in bronze contest

XTHESSALONIKI, Greece -- Iraq's surprising Olympic soccer run came up short with a 1-0 loss to Italy in a bronze-medal game that couldn't escape reminders of violence in the war-torn country.
Just before kickoff Friday, the teams exchanged words of condolence for Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, who was killed by Iraqi militants seeking to force Italy's troops out of Iraq. Italian players also wore black armbands to honor Baldoni.
Alberto Gilardino's header goal in the eighth minute sealed Italy's first soccer medal since it won gold at the 1936 Berlin Games. But with the somber mood surrounding the game, and just 5,000 fans in 23,000-seat Kaftanzoglio Stadium, even the winning Italians didn't feel like celebrating.
"It was not a very good game," said Italy coach Claudio Gentile. "We wanted to show our feeling toward the family Baldoni but we are not now even in the mood to enjoy our victory. We spent the day under big stress. Will we play or will we not play?"
Adnan Hamad, the Iraqi coach who has performed wonders against a backdrop of daily bombings and deaths back home, said his players also felt flat and sent their condolences to "our brothers and friends from Italy."
The loss meant the Iraqis go home with nothing after seeking to win the nation's first medal of any kind since 1960. Still, Hamad's players, who were unable to play any qualifying games in Baghdad because no other teams would travel there, made many friends by going all the way to the semifinal
"To reach the semifinal is a big achievement for our team under our circumstances," Hamad said. "But we wanted to win the game and to have a bronze medal to bring happiness to our people."
Argentina and Paraguay meet in today's final at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.
The dour mood of the players was reflected in a game in which both Italy and Iraq failed to generate much offense.
The lone score was set up by Italian captain Andrea Pirlo, who ran down the left side and floated a cross from almost level with the goal line.
The Iraqis failed to convert on several scoring chances, including one shot by Razzaq Farhan just before halftime that goalkeeper Ivan Pelizzoli pushed round the post.
Razzaq had a great chance to level soon after the break when a slick Iraqi move opened up the Italian defense and he was left with just Pelizzoli to beat. But his low shot was too close to the keeper and struck his foot instead of the back of the net.
The Italians should have gone further ahead two minutes later when Pirlo lofted a pass over the Iraqi defense and Gilardino got clear only to lob the ball over the keeper and the crossbar.
Associated Press
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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