Mahmoud: Beyond my imagination
© AFP

The recent AFC Asian Cup proved to be one of the most exciting in history, with Iraq surprising everyone by winning the title for the first time. With the milestone achievement sparking lasting scenes of joy across the war-torn country, Iraqi fans were particularly indebted to one man: Younis Mahmoud.

The 24-year-old emerged as the tournament's most illuminative star, steering his unfancied nation all the way to the top of the podium. His four goals, including the winner against Saudi Arabia in the final, saw him finish as the joint-top scorer walk away with the Most Valuable Player award.

With Iraq's success still fresh in mind, FIFA.com sat down with the rangy forward, who is already being heralded as one of the continent's best forwards in decades. In this exclusive interview, Mahmoud discusses scoring goals, the driving forces behind him, his team's Asian Cup success and his dream to one day play for a club in France.

FIFA.com: Younis, how significant was Iraq's AFC Asian Cup 2007 triumph?
Younis Mahmoud:
It was something unbelievable for me, even today. Making it all the way through was beyond our imagination. We wrote our names into the history books as we won the continental title for the first time. What was more significant was that with such tremendous success we put a smile back on the faces of our people.

Before the tournament, was your to become champions?
To be honest, few expected Iraq to go further than the knockout stage and we didn't predict we would win in Asia's highest-level competition. But it was beyond question that every player of our team had his own dream to create the unexpected. There had been a moment before the tournament kicked off, though, when I looked into my mind and said to myself 'it's now or never'.

Given the current political turmoil in Iraq, you must have faced problems preparing for the tournament?
We were given very little time to prepare ourselves for the Asian Cup under a new coach, as many of us had just gone through a long and hard season. The fitness problems became even worse for some players who were still playing for their clubs in Iraq. What made our life even harder was that senior players like Saleh Sadeer and Qusay Muneer were unavailable for the national team while we were touring Korea Republic due to their club commitments.

Iraq sent shockwaves through the continent by overcoming the likes of Australia and Korea Republic to storm into the final, where they overcame Saudi Arabia to lift the trophy. What were the driving forces behind the team's success?
Obviously we have a group of talented youngsters who have come of age. All these years we spent a lot of time training and playing together, and having gained enough international experience the team were in top form. Iraqi people have been going through a hard time and we wanted to make our suffering people happy so much. We also hoped to show the watching world that we, despite the pains and sufferings, are an optimistic people. I believe it was such a belief that carried us all the way through.

Did you receive congratulation from friends or family members back in Iraq after you won the final? What did you talk about?
It was hard to imagine. All of a sudden my cell phone did not stop ringing and I received hundreds of e-mails each day. Everyone was praising and thanking me and the team. It was something great to share with parents, friends, people in the neighbourhood and fans, wasn't it?

How did coach Jorvan Vieira manage to turn outsiders into champions, and how do you rate him as a coach?
Mr. Vieira is an experienced coach who spent most of his career in football at high levels. He proved his ability by reorganising the team within a very short space of time. He is a low-key person but he knows what to do and how to deal with players and the media. We should thank him for everything he did.

Was counter-attacking a major part of the Iraqi tactics during the tournament?
Of course we played deep in most games and as a centre forward, I was always fighting for every ball to create the chances. We were very strong in midfield where the likes of Nashat Akram, Qusay Muneer and Haitham Kadhum were dominant. I had them to thank for our victories. They soaked up tremendous pressure and created a lot of chances.

In the final against Saudi Arabia, you not only displayed terrific skills but also tremendous courage and determination to win.
I did what I should do as a centre forward. After beating Korea Republic to reach the final, the spirit in our camp peaked and we said to ourselves it was time to create history. Coach Vieira encouraged us to be confident all the time, saying we would be the better team against anybody if we played to our potential.

Is the Asian Cup success a timely boost for Iraq ahead of the qualifying campaign for 2010 FIFA World Cup™? Are you confident the team can book a trip to South Africa?
Winning the Asian Cup was something that not only boosted team morale but also raised spirit among our people. The World Cup qualifying campaign is a long, difficult road, but we can make it to the finals on the world stage as long as we stick to our performances in the Asian Cup.

Individually, what does the near future hold for you? Have you thought of moving to a top European league?
I will assess my option after my current contract with Algharafa Club of Qatar expires. I have received many offers from different club across the world, especially from France. I will think about this carefully and make the right decision, but it would be great to play in France.