Korea, Iraq battle for place in final

Kuala Lumpur, July 24:

Something has to give when South Korea, chasing their first finals appearance in 19 years, and Iraq, playing in only their second-ever Asian Cup semi-final, collide here on Wednesday.

The Koreans, two-time winners but bidding for their first success since 1960, are backing up from last Sunday’s exhausting win on penalties over Iran. They take on tournament surprises Iraq, who have thrilled their war-ravaged people with their successes.

A place in next Sunday’s final in Jakarta beckons against either tournament favourites Japan or Saudi Arabia, who play their semi-final in Hanoi also on Wednesday.

Korea’s Dutch coach Pim Verbeek believes his team are up against an outstanding generation of Iraqi footballers. “Iraq is not an easy team to play,” he said. “They reached the semi-final of the 2004 Athens Olympics, they were in the final of last year’s Asian Games and they were in the semi-finals of the Gulf Cup. They beat Australia, they are in the semi-final, so I think this is a very good generation of Iraqi footballers.”

South Korea have timed their run to the business end of the tournament after drawing with the Saudis and losing to Bahrain in Jakarta before finishing second in their group with a pressure 1-0 win over co-hosts Indonesia. But their tournament chances improved after they slogged it out with three-time winners Iran over 120 minutes before prevailing on penalties.

“Iraq has a strong team, we know them very well,” Verbeek said. “They have good strikers, individual, skillful and dangerous, they have a tough defence, they have good balance, they’re organised, and they are very difficult to defend against in the set pieces. So we have to play our best football to reach the final and that’s what we are going to do.”

Iraq, last time semi-finalists in 1976, have been the inspiring story of the tournament, succeeding against the best teams in Asia amid the chaos ripping apart their homeland.

Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, who has done a sterling job to unify the team despite having to prepare outside of Iraq, has called on his players to fight for their flag. “Our mission is finished in one sense because no-one expected us to make the semi-finals here,” Vieira said.

“Now we are among the first four teams in Asia, it’s good for my players, good for the country to show the real value of the Iraq team. We are united, it’s a very good group of boys and what I’ve tried to do with this group is to respect each other, to be together and to work and fight for their flag. This is the most important thing because at the end all of them are Iraqis.”