Three Iraqi footballers who took part in their team's Olympic qualifier against Australia at the weekend have gone missing, and plan to seek asylum in the country.
Players Ali Abbas, Ali Mansur and Ali Kadher vanished from the side's hotel in the early hours of Sunday morning, following their 2-0 defeat to the Olyroos on Saturday.
Assistant coach Sadi Toma has also disappeared, Iraqi Football Association Assistant Secretary Tariq Ahmed revealed.
“The players secretly took their passports at about 3am Australian time, a few hours before they were due to leave,” Mr Ahmed told the Reuters news agency.
Toma is believed to have contacted team officials in Australia and told them the players would seek asylum.
Fear of reprisals
Australia's under-23 team beat Iraq 2-0 in Gosford, north of Sydney, yesterday to take top place in their qualifying pool for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Iraq must beat Lebanon in Syria on Wednesday to secure a place in Beijing.
Mr Ahmed said he hoped the players had not decided to leave because they feared reprisals at home.
Athletes suffered badly at the hands of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his feared son Uday,
many of them beaten up after losses.
“Their fear is not justified, there is no more Saddam,” Ahmed said.
Damaging to morale
Eight members of the national Iraqi team which triumphed in the Asian Cup in July were in the side playing in the Olympic qualifier.
Abbas, said to be one of the three missing players, was one of the heroes of that campaign.
Mr Ahmed said the loss of the players would harm Iraq's chances of qualifying for the Olympics.
“This will affect the morale of the other players because we need them badly for the next match,” he said. “They could have left after they had done their duty in the next match. This shows disloyalty to their country.”
Iraq's senior soccer team — nicknamed the Lions of Mesopotamia — is a snapshot of Iraq's religious sects and ethnic groups, and has been hailed as proof that Iraq can overcome the divisions that have torn the country apart in a bitter sectarian conflict.