Iraqi Soccer Dream Comes True

Soccer-mad Iraq celebrates; authorities watch for potential attacks, disorder.

February 11, 2009, 9:33 PM

July 30, 2007 — -- When the final whistle blew after 90 minutes of breathless, passionate soccer, Younes Mahmoud and Hawar Mohammed, the latest heroes in Iraq's Asian Cup glory, crumpled into each other's arms at the center circle of Jakarta's Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.

The two 24-year-olds had connected even more famously just 22 minutes earlier-- then for a 71st minute goal that would make Iraq champions of Asia for the first time.

As his players danced around the Asian Cup trophy, their coach, the Brazilian Jorvan Vieira, looked on in relative calm.

"This has brought great happiness to a whole country," he said after the game. "This is not about a team, this is about human beings."

Vieira insisted Saturday he would resign his post after today's final, regardless of the outcome.

"I'm already a winner," he said before the match, "because nobody expected we would make the finals. We were like outsiders."

Speaking to reporters after the win, Vieira confirmed the decision, saying he was headed home to Brazil. To have "brought a smile to the lips of the Iraqi" people was enough for him, he said.

Iraq midfielder Nashat Akram, named the "man of the match" on Sunday, said during the pre-game press conference that Vieira "changed everything" when he arrived in late April. The squad had been hampered by a similar, if less grossly violent version of modern Iraqi sectarian in-fighting before the Brazilian's arrival.

Now, as Vieira told ABC before his side's quarterfinal match with Vietnam, "They are united. They respect each other and have been working together. Who is a Sunni ... who is Shia is not my problem. That is important for the Iraqi people to see."

Sunday's final was played from the opening kick at an almost unceasingly break-neck pace. Neither team accomplished anything resembling sustained possession. Instead it was mad dashes by both Iraqi and Saudi wingers that created the excitement -- and provoked a string of sharp saves from both keepers.

With less than 20 minutes to play in regular time, the head of Younes Mahmoud, the Iraqi captain, flew above the Saudi goal keeper and directly into the path of his countryman's swerving cross, driving the ball into the net and providing the "Lions of the Two Rivers" the lead that they would never relinquish.

Almost 5,000 miles away in Baghdad, a single gunshot rose into the air as Mahmoud himself returned to the ground after his flying header. When Australian referee Mark Shield looked at his watch, blew his whistle, and raised his arms to indicate the game was over, sounds of gunfire exploded throughout the still-tortured capital.

A reporter for Iraqiah television was mobbed by delirious fans, his microphone disappearing like a stone in the sea. Not that he needed it: The man, with an Iraqi flag headband wrapping his forehead, could hardly speak through the tears.

Undeterred by the bloodshed earlier in the week, when 50 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in twin suicide car bomb attacks targeted at soccer revelers, Iraqis flooded the streets of major cities across the war-ravaged country.

The celebratory gunfire defied orders by the government, which called for the traditional but deadly celebration to be shelved should Iraq triumph one more time. Early reports indicated at least four people were killed and 17 wounded by stray bullets.

Local government also imposed a ban on vehicles and motorcycles in Baghdad from a half-hour before kickoff until 6 a.m. today.

Gen. Qassim Atta, spokesman for the Fardh Al-Qanoon security plan, a sub-division of the American Operation Phantom Thunder, said during a phone interview with the Iraqia TV channel that cars parked on the street within the hours of the curfew would be treated as potential booby traps.

A similar provision was put in place in Kirkuk. That curfew was to end at 9 p.m. local time, a couple hours after the match was complete.

The run-up to the final sparked excitement not only from the people in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Tikrit, but as much from the more than 2.2 million refugees now biding their time in Jordan -- where the Iraqi team trains -- Syria and Australia, to name a few.

The forum on was flush overnight and the comments kept flowing in as the game progressed: "God Bless the Lions of Mesopotamia," proclaimed a poster identified as "Iraqisunshine." "Inshallah a win for us," he wrote, "Lord help our lions!"

When Younes connected for what would be the game-winning goal, "Iraqisunshine" was overwhelmed. As the Iraqiah commentator howled in delight, "Iraqisunshine" wrote, "OMG [Oh my God] I'm crying."

By the time Younes Mahmoud and Hawar Mohammed had settled to the turf at the game's end, the tears were flowing like the Tigris across what remains of Iraq. Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki promised each player from the winning side $10,000 for their trouble. Just how many return to the restive nation to collect the fee remains to be seen.

One reporter from Reuters, Peter Graff, wrote that "several of [his] colleagues wept with joy [after the win.] Everyone chanted, clapped, screamed and hugged, releasing the sort of emotion that cannot possibly be explained by football alone."

Football alone may not be enough to save Iraq from the centuries-old animosity that has seen the country devolve into an almost unprecedented scene of civil carnage. But for one day -- for 90 minutes and a few hours to follow-- the kind of glory that war can never match has lifted Iraq onto the throne of Asia.

ABC News' Mike Tuggle in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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