JAKARTA (Reuters) - Iraq completed one of sport’s great fairytales by beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the Asian Cup final on Sunday to provide a rare moment for celebration in their war-torn homeland.
The Saudis had been bidding to become the first four-times winners of the tournament but Iraq, riding a wave of global sentiment, upset the hot-favourites for a rare slice of sporting glory.
“This is not just about football... this is more important than that,” Iraq’s Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira told a news conference.
“This has brought great happiness to a whole country. This is not about a team, this is about human beings.”
Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud scored the winner in the 71st minute when he climbed above the defence at the far post and headed a perfectly-weighted corner from Hawar Mulla Mohammed into the net.
The Iraqis might have had won more comfortably if they had capitalised on their many scoring chances, only to be denied by a combination of sloppy finishing and extraordinary saves from Saudi goalkeeper Yasser Al Mosailem.
Saudi Arabia had been the best attacking team in the tournament, scoring 12 goals on their way to the final, but could not find a way past the Iraqis, who had the best defence in the competition, conceding just two goals in six matches.
“Iraq deserved to win today,” Saudi coach Helio Cesar dos Anjos said. “They were very motivated and we knew the whole world was supporting this team.”
Few people had given Iraq any chance of winning the tournament after haphazard preparations brought about by the war at home and facing opponents appearing in their sixth final in the last seven Asian Cups.
Iraq were forced to train and play qualifiers in neutral countries and Vieira, who confirmed his resignation after the match, only had two months to mould a team that included Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish players.
“I have learnt a lot from this last two months,” Vieira said. “We all know the problems in Iraq but I have learnt that they are a fantastic people. They have an extraordinary power.”
None of the Iraqi players have been untouched by the war and although they have tried to mask their grief, there were constant reminders of the sectarian violence at home.
At least three players in the squad have lost relatives in the past two months and the players wore black armbands during the final in memory of the 50 people killed by suicide bombers after Wednesday’s semi-final win over South Korea.
Mahmoud, who was named best player of the tournament, said one of the tragedies of the war was that the team would not even be able to return to Iraq with the trophy.
“I wish we could go, but you just don’t know who will kill you,” he said.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was at the Gelora Bung National Stadium for the final, said Iraq’s achievement had inspired millions and was proof of sport’s unique power to unite people in the most desperate circumstances.