Jubilant Iraqis Savor Their Soccer Triumph
1-0 Win Over Saudi Arabia for Long-Sought Championship 'Ended Our Suffering for a While'
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007; A10
BAGHDAD, July 29 -- It took a beautiful arching corner kick and a textbook-perfect header to bring unadulterated joy to millions of people across this war-ravaged country.
As the soccer ball sailed into the far corner of the net off the head of Younis Mahmoud, the Iraqi national team's 24-year-old captain, a collective shout rose from every corner of Baghdad.
When the final whistle blew 22 minutes later, signaling a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia and Iraq's first-ever Asian Cup championship, the sound swelled again, even louder than before. It was a moment of joy, but also of release -- from 51 years of futility on the soccer field and more than four years of war at home.
"This team brought glory to Iraq and ended our suffering for a while," said Omar Hassan, 29, who danced in the streets waving an Iraqi flag after the televised match, which was played in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Today we are proud to be Iraqis because they made Iraq a winner."
Echoing a common theme among the tens of thousands of revelers who poured into Baghdad's streets, Hassan said the soccer players should be role models for Iraqis because they surmounted the sectarian divisions that have plagued the rest of the country. Mahmoud, a Sunni Turkmen, scored the winning goal off an assist from Hawar Mohammed, a Kurd, while Shiite goalkeeper Noor Sabri Abbas earned his fourth straight shutout.
"The satisfaction is doubled when you can get this cup and you bring happiness for a country, not just a team," said Jorvan Vieira, the team's Brazilian coach. "It's more important than anything."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised each member of the team $10,000 before the championship game kicked off, and President Jalal Talabani pledged another $10,000 to each player -- and $20,000 to Mahmoud -- after the win.
"You have given lessons with your manly performance on how to defeat and defy the impossible until you triumph," Maliki told the team in a written statement.
After Iraq beat South Korea in a dramatic semifinal game Wednesday, the Iraqis faced a formidable opponent in Saudi Arabia -- the team with the most wins in Asian Cup history. Since the quadrennial tournament began in 1956, Saudi Arabia has won three times, most recently in 1996. Iraq's previous best finish, fourth place out of six teams, came in 1976.
Most people had little reason to believe that 2007 would bring Iraq's first championship. Entering the tournament, which was held a year early, the team's odds of winning were listed at 50-1. Three players learned during the two-week event that relatives had been killed by violence back home. Mahmoud, the captain and star striker, nearly missed the team's first game when he was detained for 12 hours in the Bangkok airport.
Yet from the start of the game, the underdog Iraqis were the dominant team. They outshot Saudi Arabia 12-4 and were usually one step quicker to the ball.
"This is not an achievement for the Iraqis, this is a miracle for the Iraqis," said a broadcaster on the Dubai Sports Channel.
Several fans agreed that the win was a miracle, but insisted they knew all along that Iraq would triumph. Baghdad resident Laila Abid said she was upset when her husband predicted that Saudi Arabia would tie the score.
"He said, 'They will get a goal now,' and I was really angry with him, so I hit him with my slipper," Abid said. "Iraq won by a gift from God."
After the game, Abid and her husband joined the celebration in the streets, passing out chocolate.
The post-game festivities in Baghdad lasted well into the night, with vendors handing out free ice cream and water and young men shooting weapons into the air and hugging strangers. Despite multiple warnings from the military and government not to engage in celebratory gunfire, shots rang out for more than an hour.
Several casualties were reported as a result of stray bullets, but an emergency security operation in Baghdad prevented a repeat of the violence after the semifinal game. Vehicles were prohibited on all city streets from game time until Monday morning to minimize the chance of car bomb attacks, which killed 50 people after the South Korea game.
The day of celebration was not completely devoid of politics. After the match, Mahmoud said he would not return to Iraq and called for a U.S. withdrawal. "I want America to go out," he said. "Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out."
In Irbil, a city in a semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, Kurds mixed freely with Arabs displaced from other parts of the country despite the ongoing tensions between the groups. Though Kurds have often sought to disassociate themselves from the turmoil in the rest of Iraq, thousands chanted "Iraq! Glorious Baghdad!" in the streets after the game.
Many Irbil residents carried small Iraqi flags, which were confiscated by police because of a law against displaying anything but the Kurdistan flag. Instead, revelers waved white handkerchiefs.
"We are all one today, with one heart for Iraq and against terrorism," said Mahmoud Fadhil, a displaced Baghdad resident who now lives in Irbil. "Look, over here there are Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, all of them with one heart today."
Fans across the country acknowledged that a soccer game could not solve the deep problems facing Iraq and that violence between Sunnis and Shiites would return all too soon. But none of that mattered.
For one night, at least, Iraq had something to celebrate.