TOPICS : Football the winner in Iraq’s fairytale run

Asia’s premier football championship received unprecedented global coverage thanks to the fairytale journey of the national team from war-ravaged Iraq. On Sunday night, Iraq’s footballers were crowned the new heroes of the region after defeating the more fancied Saudi Arabians in Jakarta. “We had double the media exposure this year than the last Asian Cup held in China,” Claire Kenny Tipton, communications director for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), said. “The championship became a story that went beyond our region. We even had broadcast partners in North America and on-line streaming for the European market.”

Few had dared to predict such a finale when Iraq, captained by Younis Mahmoud, featured in the tournament’s curtain raiser against Thailand on July 7. That game, on a monsoon-soaked night at the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok, ended in a 1-1 draw. “The favoured teams at the beginning of the championship were the well-known football powers in Asia,” says Jaiarajo Letchumanan, sports editor of Bernama, Malaysia’s national news agency. “They included Japan, South Korea, China, Iran and the new-comers to the region’s competition Australia.”

“We never thought of Iraq as the ultimate winners. Few people gave them a chance,” he revealed. “But the way they got to the final was amazing and the way they fought in the final was a marvel to watch.” “They made the Saudi Arabian team look very average,” he added. “They clearly played to prove a point about the brand of football they play. They wanted the world to take notice about their game despite the troubles back home.”

The international media could not resist the unique features about this team no sooner they flew into Bangkok to mount their campaign in a tournament involving 16 teams and 32 matches spread over three weeks in four host countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Many reports touched on the sense of unity in a team made up of Iraqis from the Sunni, Shia and Kurd communities at a time when the three groups have been torn apart by the war back home.

Equally difficult to ignore was the personal pain the team carried due to the bombs and bullets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The fear of kidnappings and death threats to the players had compelled the Iraqis to conduct their final training session before the tournament in Amman. For that, the AFC had to give an additional of $50,000 to the cash-strapped Iraqi team. That payment, on top of the $40,000 given by the regional sporting body, was “to help with the team’s travel costs.”

“This victory is a gift for our people,” said Jamal Yusuf, a 30-year-old Baghdad native. “It is a victory that will bring our country together and show that the different races can combine and play as a team.” For Mahmud Mourad, an Egyptian supporting the underdogs, Sunday’s win will help bring “more recognition” to the Iraqi style of play. “They are a very strong team and showed that during Asia Cup. But it is not only football that has won.” — IPS