Dancing in the streets
Violence won't deter talented Iraq in Asian Cup final
Posted: Thursday July 26, 2007 1:52PM; Updated: Thursday July 26, 2007 3:24PM
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Where do I hope to be on Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. ET? In front of a TV with Setanta Sports USA to watch the Fairytale Boys from Iraq taking on Saudi Arabia in the championship game of the AFC Asian Cup. Iraq's first-ever run to Asian soccer's Big Game is a stunning development, to say nothing of a rare success story in Iraqi nationalism, circa 2007.
When the Iraqi team eliminated South Korea on penalty kicks in the semifinals on Tuesday, the streets of cities across Iraq filled with revelers honking car horns, banging drums and shooting automatic weapons into the air in celebration of a team that features Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds succeeding together under the Iraqi flag.
This Iraqi team has some legitimate talent. It beat 2006 World Cup finalist Australia in the first round, eliminated the 2002 World Cup semifinalist South Korea, and its top goal-scoring threat, Younis Khalef, may be on the verge of a lucrative move to Europe.
But the Iraqi run hasn't come without major hurdles, either. Its journeyman Brazilian coach, Jorvan Vieira, has described the monumental challenges of prying players from their Iraqi clubs, overcoming the Iraqi federation's organizational chaos and uniting players who mistrusted each other based on their religious affiliations.
The Iraqi team also includes some of the players from its 2004 Olympic team, which made its own remarkable run to the semifinals, beating Portugal and Australia along the way.
The deciding penalty kick against South Korea on Wednesday was scored by substitute midfielder Ahmed Manajid, a reminder that politics is still never far from the surface when the subject is the Iraqi soccer team.
It was Manajid, you may recall, who told me during the 2004 Olympics that if he wasn't playing soccer he would have been fighting in his native Fallujah as an insurgent against U.S. forces. Manajid was one of several players on that Iraqi team who criticized U.S. president George W. Bush for using the team's success in his campaign speeches that year.
Tragically, suicide bombers in Iraq took advantage of the soccer celebrations on Wednesday, setting off attacks that killed 50 people. Let's hope that doesn't happen again on Sunday if Iraqis end up celebrating their greatest moment of nationalism in years with a defeat of Saudi Arabia.