BAGHDAD Three Iraqi soccer players secretly left their team hotel in Australia hours after playing a weekend Olympic qualifying match and they plan to seek asylum, an Iraqi soccer official said on Sunday.
Midfielder Ali Abbas, one of the heroes of Iraq's stunning Asian Cup triumph in July, was among the three who planned to seek asylum in Australia, said Iraqi Football Association Assistant Secretary Tariq Ahmed.
The other two players were identified as Ali Mansur and Ali Khadher. Assistant coach Sadi Toma had also gone missing with the three players, Ahmed said.
"The players secretly took their passports at about 3 a.m Australian time, a few hours before they were due to leave," Ahmed told Reuters in Baghdad.
Toma had contacted team officials in Australia later on Sunday and told them the players would seek asylum.
Australia's under-23 team beat Iraq 2-0 in Gosford, north of Sydney, on Saturday 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.
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 suffering beatings after losses.
"Their fear is not justified, there is no more Saddam," Ahmed said.
Eight members of the national Iraqi team which won the Asian Cup were also in the under-23 side playing in the Olympic qualifier in Australia.
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," he said.
Iraq's senior soccer team, nicknamed the Lions of Mesopotamia, triggered nationwide euphoria and attracted global media attention when they beat heavily favored Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the Asian Cup final.
The team, a snapshot of Iraq's religious sects and ethnic groups, were hailed as proof that Iraq could overcome the divisions that have torn the country apart in a sectarian conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.
(Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Michael Winfrey)