Football team give battered nation a cause to celebrate

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Iraqis celebrated yesterday in a rare gesture of unity and solidarity after the national team won the Asia Cup football tournament.

The victory over Saudi Arabia, the firm favourites, was hailed as remarkable achievement by a team with many members personally affected by violence, and which faced acute problems in terms of facilities and equipment.

The Iraqi government had ordered a curfew in an attempt to stop bomb attacks on fans. Fifty people were killed and more than 130 injured following victory in a previous round of the competition, against South Korea.

But the order was ignored with dancing and parades amid celebratory gunfire. There was also a fleeting respite from the sectarian strife raking the country, with confetti sprayed into crowds in Basra in the Shia south, and processions of cars with Iraqi and Kurdish flags entwined in Kurdish Sulaymaniyah.

Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, announced that each member of the team would receive $10,000 (£4,940) each, and the government offered its congratulations. But many argued that Iraq's politicians should take no credit for the achievement of the footballers. In Baghdad Sabah Shaiyal, a 43-year-old policeman, said: "These heroes have done something useful for the people, unlike the politicians and lawmakers who are stealing and killing each other."

The 1-0 scoreline in the Indonesian capital Jakarta was not seen as an accurate reflection of the way Iraq had dominated the game with attacking, entertaining football. The winning, headed goal, by captain Younis Mahmoud, came in the 71st minute.

At least three members of the teamhave lost relatives in the past two months. The squad included Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, and the divisions in Iraqi society are said to have caused tension within the team.

The squad had been beset by difficulties over funding and visas for travel. In contrast, the Saudis had the best preparation money could buy, with cars and houses promised as bonuses on top of their huge wages.

After yesterday's game the team's Brazilian coach,Jorvan Vieira, stepped down from "the most dangerous job in football", saying he had fulfilled the terms of his contract by "bringing a smile to the Iraqi people".