Few, however, had dared to predict such a finale when Iraq, captained by Younis Mahmoud, featured in the tournament's curtain raiser against Thailand on Jul. 7. That game, on a monsoon-soaked night at the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok, ended in a 1-1 draw.
"The favored teams at the beginning of the championship were the well-known football powers in Asia," says Jaiarajo Letchumanan, sports editor of Bernama, Malaysia's national news agency. "They included Japan, South Korea, China, Iran and the new-comers to the region's competition Australia."
"We never thought of Iraq as the ultimate winners. Few people gave them a chance," he revealed during a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur. "But the way they got to the final was amazing and the way they fought in the final was a marvel to watch."
"They made the Saudi Arabian team look very average," he added. "They clearly played to prove a point about the brand of football they play. They wanted the world to take notice about their game despite the troubles back home."
Mahmoud, in fact, emerged as the star on Sunday evening, when he headed the ball off a Hawar Mohammed corner kick into his opponent's goal in the 71st minute. That brought the 24-year-old captain's tally to four goals in the tournament, enabling him to join the ranks of Saudi Arabia's Yasser Al Qhatani and Japan's Naohiro Takahara as the tournament's leading scorers.
But equally impressive during the final was Iraq's defense, led by goalkeeper Noor Sabri Abbas. His saves produced loud cheers among the estimated 60,000 people who filled the stands, most of who were rooting for the team billed as the underdogs. The Iraqi wall that the Saudis failed to penetrate had, in fact, been a determining feature to ensure the team remain undefeated. Only twice had a ball got through in five of the tournament's games till the showdown in Jakarta.
The international media, however, could not resist the other features about this team no sooner they flew into Bangkok to mount their campaign in a tournament involving 16 teams and 32 matches spread over three weeks in four host countries -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Many reports touched on the sense of unity in a team made up of Iraqis from the Sunni, Shia and Kurd communities at a time when the three groups have been torn apart by the on-going war back home.
Equally difficult to ignore was the personal pain the team carried due to the bombs and bullets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. On the eve of the team's departure, Anwar Jassim, the team's physiotherapist, was killed in a bomb blast in Iraq as he was heading to pick up his ticket for the flight to Southeast Asia.
Noor Sabri, whose feats at the goal to secure a victory for Iraq during penalty kicks in the semi-final against South Korea, also arrived following a tragedy in the family. His brother-in-law was killed in a bombing, days before the tournament's opener.
The fear of kidnappings and death threats to the players had compelled the Iraqis to conduct their final training session before the tournament in Amman, the Jordanian capital. For that, the AFC had to give "an additional subsidy" of $50,000 to the cash-strapped Iraqi team. That payment, on top of the $40,000 given by the regional sporting body to all teams, was "to help with the team's travel costs."
This economic reality was even on display at the beginning of the tournament, when the Iraqi team arrived with "old uniforms and without training equipment," reported the Reuters news agency. And so, too, by the end, when the Iraqis occupied the seats in the economy class of the flight to the final from Malaysia to Indonesia. Their rivals, the vastly affluent Saudis, opted for the comfort of a private jet.
Till Sunday's final, the furthest Iraq had advanced in previous Asian Cups was to the quarter-final stage during the last three tournaments. They lost to the United Arab Emirates in 1996, Japan in 2000 and China, the tournament's host, in 2004.
By the final whistle, Iraqi citizens who had gathered to watch the all-Arab contest on television in a section of Bangkok lined with Middle Eastern restaurants knew that they had just witnessed a historic moment. At one venue, Al Ferddous Restaurant, some 60 Iraqi men who had been cheering their team and waving the national flag, were beside themselves with joy. They tumbled on to the street, chanting praises for their country in Arabic.
"This victory is a gift for our people," said Jamal Yusuf, a 30-year-old native from Baghdad. "It is a victory that will bring our country together and show that the different races can combine and play as a team."
For Mahmud Mourad, an Egyptian who was supporting the underdogs, Sunday's triumph will help bring "more recognition" to the Iraqi style of play. "They are a very strong team and showed that during this tournament. But it is not only football that has won."
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Albion Monitor July
30, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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