July 29, 2007
On Eve of Asian Cup Final, Iraq Is the Proud Underdog
By PETER GELLING
JAKARTA, Indonesia, July 28 — In the Asian Cup final against Saudi Arabia on Sunday, Iraq is the underdog in every way imaginable.
Saudi Arabia, which has appeared in five of the last six finals, is a three-time champion. Iraq has never been to the finals and last played in the semifinals 31 years ago.
But that is only the beginning of the uphill fight for Iraq’s young, beleaguered players.
When the Iraqi national soccer team left Malaysia for the finals here, they were delayed three hours in the Kuala Lumpur airport before collapsing into their cramped, economy-class seats.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s team strolled onto its stylish, private jet, accompanied by media representatives, interpreters, doctors and coaches, and was whisked here.
This has been the story for the Iraqis the entire tournament. The underfinanced team has been plagued by endless complications with travel, accommodations, food, training and equipment.
“From A to Z, everything has been a problem from the very beginning,” said Jorvan Vieira, the head coach from Brazil who brushed aside death threats to take his short-term job with Iraq.
For starters, Iraq lost an early preliminary match against South Korea, 3-0, after traveling 36 hours to get to the game. And then, an already exhausted Younes Mahmoud, the team’s captain, was detained for 12 hours in Bangkok, awaiting permission to enter the country on the eve of Iraq’s first tournament game against Thailand.
Upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur for the semifinal match against South Korea, the players found their hotel rooms occupied by the Iranian team, which had already been eliminated. The Iraqis waited for hours in the lobby for rooms, delaying their scheduled practice — and sleep.
Saudi Arabia, on the other side, with more than double the budget of Iraq and players who have been promised lavish gifts if they win, has had virtually no logistical problems.
The “Lions of the Two Rivers,” as the Iraqi team is known back home, are no strangers to adversity. The war plays heavily on their minds and has taken at least one family member from every player on the team, some very recently.
Noor Sabri, Iraq’s goalie-turned-national hero whose save helped the team defeat South Korea in penalty kicks to reach the final, lost his brother-in-law in a bombing four days before the team arrived in Bangkok for the start of the tournament.
“We are all suffering, but we are also surviving,” said Mr. Mahmoud, the captain. “We try to concentrate only on the matches because it is the only way to bring happiness to the Iraqi people.”
The team brought joy to Iraqis by simply making it to the quarterfinals, which was their modest goal in the beginning. After defeating Vietnam, 2-0, in the quarterfinals, spirits began to rise. And after the victory over South Korea, the world watched as the players cried, wrapped in Iraqi flags, on the Malaysian field.
The Asian Cup, held every four years, is taking place a year early because of the logistical jam created by the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the European soccer championship. The next Asian Cup is set for 2011.
On a balmy night here on Friday, the team showed no signs of the stress of home or the pressure of the tournament.
Mr. Vieira, the head coach, says the same thing to the team every day for motivation.
“Play for the Iraqi people,” he said on Friday night. “Play to put a smile on their lips.”
Haider Abdul Amir, a defender, says he is playing for his family.
“I talk to my family every day,” he said. “They are so excited, so happy. It’s a wonderful thing.”
His family lives in Baghdad and, like his fellow teammates, he was troubled by the bombings that killed more than 50 people there during the victory celebrations this week.
Despite all of this, the Iraqi players have remained positive. Shy smiles splashed across their faces as they met the horde of journalists after Friday’s practice. The teammates then boarded a bus back to the hotel, their exhaustion revealed as the bus lurched through Jakarta.
In the back of the bus, a friendly discussion quickly turned into a rollicking debate. The team argued about the Koran and about where one goes after dying. Sunnis and Shiites participated in the debate, and it lasted all the way to the hotel, illustrating another hurdle for this team, which also includes Kurds.
Mr. Amir smiled at the arguments, at times shouting his own opinion.
“I am a Shiite; he is a Sunni; and we are best of friends,” he said referring to Mahdi Karim, a midfielder who smiled broadly. He added: “We play for Iraq. We are all family on this bus.”
Helio Anjos, the Saudi Arabian head coach, said that he was well aware of the strength of the Iraqis.
“For tomorrow, Iraq will be a very, very tough opponent,” he said. “They are playing with a lot of emotion and a lot of
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