BAGHDAD Iraq's government said on Monday it hopes to welcome home the football team which sparked waves of national euphoria by winning the Asian Cup but security concerns are causing hesitation among some players.
Iraqi Youth and Sports Minister Jasem Mohammed Jaafar said it was hoped the team, most of whose players live abroad, would arrive in Baghdad this week after their Asian Cup final triumph over Saudi Arabia in Jakarta on Sunday.
"They will be met at the airport by representatives of the prime minister, president and speaker of the Council of Representatives," Jaafar told Reuters.
"We are studying how to offer them the necessary security so they can enjoy the events we have for them," he said.
Suicide car bombs killed 50 people after Iraq's semi-final win over South Korea last week sent celebrating fans pouring into the streets.
Players fear they, and the large crowds expected to turn out to meet them, would be easy targets for insurgents.
"I am very happy and my wish is to be able to go to Iraq and live this moment with Iraqis," Iraqi team captain Younis Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone from Indonesia.
"Our objective was to win the Cup and we have it, but now our minds are set on where and how we can celebrate in these difficult circumstances," he said.
Mahmoud, who scored the winning goal in the final, was named player of the tournament.
His team won Iraq's first Asian Cup title against the odds, overcoming logistical and training problems and led by a Brazilian coach who was only in the job for two months.
Midfielder Hawar Mullah Mohammad, who set up Mahmoud's goal with an inch-perfect corner kick, said he was also looking forward to a national reception.
"We wish we could go back and get a reception like other winning teams in open-top buses," Mohammad told Reuters.
"But we don't only fear for ourselves, we are also afraid for the safety of the large crowds that may be targeted by terrorists," he said.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh tried to reassure the Mahmoud and his players.
"The players shouldn't worry because there are many safe places in Baghdad," he said.
Thousands of jubilant fans took to the streets on Sunday in the biggest nationwide celebrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the win offering war-weary Iraqis a rare moment of joy and unity.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani have promised financial rewards for the players, and lawmakers debated on Monday whether to give team members small plots of land in Baghdad.
The team's victory has received blanket media coverage at home, with television channels broadcasting songs boasting of the victory and seemingly endless replays of the winning goal.