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TEAM OF THE YEAR

War-weary champions

December 30, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- Saturday, July 7, Bangkok: A monsoon soaks the pitch. Organizers delay the opening ceremony. Half the crowd stays home. It's the essence of inauspicious. As the 14th Asian Cup begins, there's no indication that this match features the indisputable team of the year upon Planet Earth.

Oddsmakers reckon this Iraq soccer team 50-1. The Korea Herald sees "a respectable mid-ranked Asian team, unlikely to lift the bowl-shaped Asian trophy in Jakarta on July 29 but certainly capable of making it past the first round." Everyone sees war-ravaged.

No home matches for 17 years, players strewn about eight countries in the region, headquarters in another country (Jordan), death threats shooing a manager in 2006, kidnappers (some in military garb) abducting 22-year-old player Ghanim Ghudayer, still missing.

As Iraq plays Thailand, it's hard to conjure inferior preparatory circumstances. The manager, a fourth choice, just signed on in May. His contract: two months. The 54-year-old Brazilian Jorvan Vieira has managed 26 clubs and four other national teams . . .

And calls this his toughest chore. No usable facilities in the home country. Visa hassles. Logistical frets. Harsh politics. Vieira, to reporters in Asia, said: "There was no unity." He called a workout in Jordan soon after signing. Six players showed.

Anyway, Australia's the favorite in the biggest event in the world's biggest sport on the world's biggest continent. Japan, the champion from 2004 and 2000. Saudi Arabia, a finalist five times out of six. South Korea, China, Iran . . .

Iraq? Heady at Athens in 2004, sure (it reached a semifinal). But it has no players in Europe's dreamland, one prior trip to an Asian Cup final four (1976) and inconceivable stress. A player's brother-in-law was killed four days before the tournament. A team trainer gone to collect his ticket before leaving was killed in a bomb blast.

Sixth minute: Thailand up, 1-0, fishy penalty. Thirty-second minute: Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud, leading scorer in the Qatari league, heads one in. They persist in slop. It's a 1-1 draw. Vieira tells reporters, "You can't imagine how many problems we have had to prepare this team."

Friday, July 13, Bangkok: Worse, Iraq draws in the same four-team group with Australia, with its gaudy English Premier League employees Harry Kewell (Liverpool), Tim Cahill (Everton), Lucas Neill (West Ham), Mark Viduka (Newcastle) and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer (Middlesbrough), among others. It's still rippling from its 2006 World Cup splash. Anything shy of the final constitutes failure, says the manager.

Well, Iraq has Nashat Akram, whose free kick floats over Schwarzer and into the net for a 21st-minute howler. Viduka scores at 47, but Iraq commences shredding Australia. Nifty passing sets up Hawar Mulla Mohammed in the 60th. Karvar Jassim scores in the 86th.

It's a 3-1 rout. Australia's coach cites humidity. Australia's reporters sharpen their pens. Iraq's goalkeeper Noor skewers Australia's self-destructive swagger. Vieira tells reporters Iraq has "caused 90 minutes' peace," and while urging humility says, "We have a right to dream."

Monday, July 16, Bangkok: Deluge, again. Only 500 attend. Oman has beaten Iraq thrice consecutively, but a 0-0 draw books Iraq to the quarterfinals. Some 3,754 miles away, the country obsesses, and Agence France-Presse reports that people have bring-your-own-benzene gatherings, given outrageous electricity costs.

Saturday, July 21, Bangkok: Iraq lost the Asian Cup quarterfinals in 1996 and 2000 and 2004, but Vietnam lends milder resistance. Its manager laments size disadvantages. Iraq rolls, 2-0. An Akram free kick in the second minute. Mahmoud, fashioning a gorgeous free kick over the defensive wall to flee the keeper in the 66th. Suddenly, asked to imagine winning the whole thing, Mahmoud tells reporters, "Why not?"

Vieira laments sloppy play. Nobody in Iraq listens. They're celebrating, firing guns upward. At least five people die, maybe 25 wounded.

Wednesday, July 25, Kuala Lumpur: Vieria gets miffed in the run-up. The players must wait six hours for hotel rooms. Their team dinner Monday night came at 1:30 a.m. He proclaims disadvantage.

A match of almost unbearable tension unfolds in air suited for gills. Goalless, it drifts toward penalties. Penalties stand 3-3. Baghdad inhales before TV screens, uncommonly united. It's a country.

Yeom Ki-hun's left foot thuds the ball. Noor lunges right and tips it around the post and out. Iraq's Ahmed Menajed converts, so Korea's Kim Jung-woo must also. He smacks the right post. Iraqi players pile upon Noor. They're going to the final. Noor notes recent deaths in his and a teammate's families, calls this "a modest thing we can give our people."

As Saudi streets teem because Saudi Arabia has won, 3-2, over Japan, which had bounced Australia, now go the streets of Baghdad. Horns. Flags. Tears. Respite.

Tears. Two suicide bombs, one from a car near a crowded fete, at least 50 dead, at least 100 wounded.

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