Younis Mahmoud is very much the man of the moment in his homeland. The 24-year-old emerged from three weeks of thrilling action as the AFC Asian Cup 2007's transcendent performer, and capped a series of outstanding displays with the only goal in Iraq's win over Saudi Arabia in the final. Having inspired his team to the concluding match with three strikes in five games, the Iraq skipper rose to the occasion to head home the deciding goal in the 71st minute and imprint a new name on the trophy in the process.
While Mahmoud was heralded as a national hero in Iraq, his opposite number Yasser Al Qahtani can also return home with his head held high. Indeed, the 24-year-old's exceptional performances and assured leadership guided the new-look Saudis to their sixth Asian Cup final. The pair finished as the tournament's four-goal joint-top scorers, alongside Japan's Naohiro Takahara, and although a number of players excelled during the competition, it was the finalists' respective captains who shone brightest.
Mahmoud emerges victorious
After Iraq and Saudi Arabia stunned their hotly-tipped East Asian rivals Korea Republic and Japan to set up an all-West Asian final, all eyes immediately focused on their respective captains. Mahmoud, an AFC Young Player of the Year nominee in 2003, burst on to the continental stage in the qualifying campaign for the Asian Cup 2004, scoring seven times to help Iraq win their group. The lanky forward then made an impression at China 2004, scoring the winner in a 2-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia which helped his side progress to the knockout stage, where they were eliminated by the hosts.
Furthermore, the all-action forward played a key role in the team that shocked the watching world by reaching the semi-finals of the 2004 Men's Olympic Football Tournament. Wearing the captain's armband, Mahmoud weighed in with three goals, including a brace in Iraq's 2-0 quarter-final victory over Vietnam, and acted as the driving force behind his team's unexpected success.
Qahtani may have entered Sunday's climax to a memorable Asian Cup one goal up on his rival, but in a contest largely dominated by the Iraqis it was Mahmoud who ran the show. An acrobatic bicycle kick by the gifted No10 forced Saudi goalkeeper Yaser Al Mosailem into action as early as the eighth minute, and soon after he stole the ball from an opponent only to shoot the ball into the grateful arms of Mosailem.
Mahmoud continued to threaten the Saudi goal after the interval. He should have opened scoring after 57 minutes when perfectly released by Nashat Akream, but with only the goalkeeper to beat he hesitated and the chance went begging. However, he made up well for this miss when he headed home a Hawar Mohammed corner to seal victory with 19 minutes to go.
Bright future for Qahtani
With Saudi Arabia pinned back into their own third for the majority of the encounter, Qahtani, who netted a spectacular effort goal in the 3-2 win over Japan, struggled to orchestrate his team's attacks. Affectionately nicknamed 'The Sniper', he was instrumental in Saudi Arabia's qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and he did nonetheless show glimpses of his undoubted talent at the Bung Karno Stadium.
Qahtani went close to breaking the deadlock moments before the break after breaking clear against the run play, but his habitually composed finishing somehow deserted him when well-placed. In the end, though, it was not to be for the Saudis and their Gulf neighbours deservedly lifted aloft the trophy.
Despite the disappointing outcome, Saudi Arabian supporters can accentuate the many positives from a tournament that saw them dazzle en route to the final. Above all, they can proudly reflect upon the contribution of Qahtani, a rising star who is sure to be among the continent's elite for years to come.