Football: Iraq seek 'revenge' for defeat in Gulf

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The Independent Online
THE ASIAN World Cup qualifying tournament reaches a crucial phase this weekend, with the start of the second and final round.

Iraq, Iran and North Korea, three nations whose names register great unease in the United States, begin their quests in Doha, Qatar, for a place at the finals next year.

They are joined by South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan - all politically aligned with the States - for the second stage, from which two teams will progress to the finals. Iraq, which lost the Gulf War against a US-led coalition, are on a self-styled 'revenge' mission and their campaign for USA '94 has reportedly been led by President Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Odai.

The Iraqis have undertaken a strict training regime since edging out China in the first qualification round. It has included hiking over sand dunes and swimming the Tigris River to harden the players physically.

Iran, whose centuries-old conflicts with Iraq included the 1980-88 war which killed more than one million people, remain isolated by the West. North Korea are still technically at war with South Korea following their 1950-53 hostilities.

As part of their proposal to host the World Cup, the United States pledged to grant visas to all teams who qualify. They are edgy, though, about the Asian line-up.

'The Americans are what you might describe as a little nervous about the possibility of such teams qualifying,' Peter Velappan, the Asian Football Confederation general secretary, said. He is keen to deflect the eyes of the world's media from the political overtones to the football credentials of the six sides.

'Naturally when people look at the line-up they see the politics, not the football, but the reality is we have never had a tougher or closer World Cup qualifying group in Asia,' he said.

'We have made it very clear to the participating teams that these games have to rise above politics.'

The Japanese desperately want to qualify for the first time to boost their bid to host the 2002 World Cup. The professional J-League, launched earlier this year, has whipped the country into a football frenzy.

South Korea possess the pedigree to do well, having played in the 1986 and 1990 World Cup finals, while North Korea are the only Asian side to have reached the World Cup quarter-finals, after they beat Italy in the 1966 tournament in England.

Iran have qualified for the finals once before, in 1978, and made something of an impression by holding Scotland to a 1-1 draw in Argentina.

The Iraqis played in the 1986 Mexico finals, losing all three of their matches.

Despite pumping vast amounts of money into football and hiring top coaches from Brazil, Saudi Arabia have never made it to the World Cup finals.

The qualifying tournament starts with North Korea playing Iraq and Saudi Arabia taking on Japan on Friday.

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