JAKARTA, Indonesia: Iraq won the 2007 Asian Cup on Sunday in a victory that represented one of the most inspiring moments in sport, but one that was also weighted by the tragedy from which the team has only temporarily emerged.
A 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia clinched Iraq's first ever Asian Cup, with a squad drawn together in ad-hoc circumstances from all parts of the Gulf, and with its players straddling the bitter and violent ethnic divides.
And it was no lucky win. Iraq dominated the final against a heavily favored Saudi Arabia, a three-time Asian Cup champion.
At the final whistle, captain and goal scorer Younis Mahmoud sprinted across the pitch with his elated teammates in pursuit before they collapsed into a pile, overwhelmed with their achievement.
Mahdi Karim, No. 18 and Younis Mahmoud, 10 celebrating with their team after beating Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup soccer final in Jakarta on Sunday. (Jerry Lampen/Reuters )But that elation was juxtaposed against the tragedy in their homeland, and as coach Jorvan Vieira and Mahmoud sat wearing black armbands in the post-match news conference to commemorate the dozens of fans killed during post semifinal celebration, they represented the victory's bittersweet nature.
"It's very clear, from our arms, our respect to the people who died when we put Korea out of the competition," Vieira said. "This victory we offer to the families of those people."
Vieira also remembered the team physio Anwar, who was killed in a bombing as he was collecting tickets to attend the pre-tournament training camp in Jordan.
"He died and left behind a wife and four kids. He was our physio, everybody liked him. This cup we offer to Anwar, our physio."
The experienced Vieira will leave his post immediately after this match, exhausted by the difficulty of preparing an Iraqi team in such circumstances, but left with strong impressions of his briefly adopted nation.
"I have worked my best to bring a warm smile to their lips and my mission is accomplished," Vieira said. "The satisfaction is doubled when you can get this cup and you bring happiness for a country, not just a team. It's more important than anything.
"Iraqi people, Iraqi players are fantastic people. They are the type of people who have fantastic power within themselves. I learnt a lot with these boys... and I will keep it forever in my life."
Iraq — Olympic semifinalists in 2004 and Asian Games finalists last December — dominated the match from the beginning, and Vieira was not exaggerating when he said the side could easily have won by two or three goals.
The goal to live on in Iraqi folklore came in the 71st minute. A corner by Hawar Mulla Mohammed was floated high to the far post. Saudi goalkeeper Yasser Al Mosailem came for the ball and flapped at it without making any contact, presenting a simple chance for an unmarked Mahmoud to nod in the winner.
Rather than sit on its lead, an inspired Iraq continued to push forward, and only in the last five minutes did they put men behind the ball, clinging on desperately as Saudi Arabia probed for the equalizer to no avail.
Mahmoud won the player of the tournament award — ending as joint top scorer — and midfielder Nashat Akram player of the match.
Amid the Iraq victory, Saudi Arabia was almost overlooked, but left the tournament as worthy finalists.
Coach Helio Cesar dos Anjos said he warned his players pre-match of a the powerful motivation of Iraq, and paid credit to an opponent that never allowed his team to get its fluent passing game going.
"We know the political situation in Iraq, and we are sad for that," he said. "I hope the best for the people of Iraq, they deserve to be happy, but I am also sorry for the people of Saudi Arabia who were dreaming of winning this cup."
Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office announced that each player on the Iraqi team would receive US$10,000 for their achievements.
The jubilation over the ascension of the team known as the "Lions of the Two Rivers" to the final gave Iraqis a rare respite from the daily violence.
Defying authorities, celebratory gunfire resounded across Baghdad after Iraq's final win, when Iraqis welcomed a rare moment of joy that sent revelers pouring into the streets, but the shooting killed at least four.
Mosques broadcast calls for the shooting to stop, while security forces enforced a vehicle ban in the capital in an effort to prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens celebrating Iraq's progress to the finals.
"Those heroes have shown the real Iraq. They have done something useful for the people as opposed to the politicians and lawmakers," said Sabah Shaiyal, a 43-year-old policeman in Baghdad's main Shiite district of Sadr City. "The players have made us proud. Once again our national team has shown that there is only one, united Iraq."