Mahmoud inspires Iraqi ecstasy
© AFP

Iraq ended the era of the 'big four' on the continental stage by defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Jakarta on Sunday to win the 14th edition of the AFC Asian Cup. The tournament had been dominated by Korea Republic, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Japan since its inception in 1956, but it was the Iraqi skipper Younis Mahmoud who headed home the only goal of the game to mark a new beginning for the West Asians.

The Al Gharafa striker, who also scored the winner in a 2-1 victory over the Saudis three years ago in the group stage, renewed his acquaintance with the three-time Asian champions and sealed yet another memorable win with a pinpoint header off a Hawar Mohammed corner in the 71st minute.

No one could have anticipated this outcome when the Iraqis, who began their campaign as underdogs in Group A, snatched a 1-1 draw with co-hosts Thailand in their opener courtesy of Mahmoud's equaliser. But Iraq stunned the watching world by beating favourites Australia 3-1 and then securing top spot in the pool thanks to a scoreless draw with Oman. Thereafter, Mahmoud scored both goals in a 2-0 reverse of Vietnam in the last eight, before Iraq eliminated Korea Republic on penalties after their semi-final had ended scoreless on Wednesday.

With everyday violence ongoing in their war-torn homeland, the achievement was all the more precious for the Iraqis, who saw more than 50 of their compatriots killed by car bombs while celebrating their side's penalty shootout win over the Koreans. Their Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira was quick to praise his players for overcoming this harsh reality. "The players are fantastic and you have to understand the difficulties," the 54-year-old said. "They have had this situation for the past years and they have fantastic power inside themselves."

Consequently voted Player of the Tournament, Mahmoud stood on the podium to receive the coveted trophy from AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam and FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, as the Iraqi players celebrated winning the continental title for the first time and clinching a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009.

Trio qualify for Qatar
On Saturday, Korea Republic claimed the bronze medal after defeating neighbours Japan 6-5 in their third consecutive penalty shootout of the tournament. The Koreans had eliminated their old nemesis Iran in the quarter-finals, before losing to eventual winners Iraq on penalties in their semi-final.

Having failed to score for 240 minutes in their two previous games, the Taeguk Warriors had to endure another two goalless hours and they were even down to ten men after defender Kang Min-Soo was given his second yellow card in the 56th minute. The referee also ordered coach Pim Verbeek, his assistant Hong Myung-Bo, and goalkeeping coach Cossa, who protested against the decision, to leave the bench.

Despite the result it was Verbeek's swansong at the Korean controls, the Dutchman announcing his resignation after the game. "It's time for a new challenge," the 51-year-old said. "Before the tournament we had a target to win the Asian Cup, but the situation was really bad for us. Although we had a good defence, we didn't score enough goals in order to win."

However, Korea Republic did return home with a considerable reward: qualification to the Asian Cup 2011. Iraq and Saudi Arabia have also been assured of places in Qatar following the AFC's decision to grant the top three teams in this year's competition automatic byes to the finals in four years time.


Final
Sunday, 29 July
Iraq 1-0 Saudi Arabia

Third place playoff
Saturday, 28 July
Korea Republic 0-0 Japan (Korea Republic win 6-5 on penalties)