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Iraqi Players on Emotional Rollercoaster
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Iraqi soccer players are riding the highs and lows of triumph and tragedy after the nation's first qualification for an Asian Cup final was marred by the deaths of 26 fans celebrating the victory back home.

Iraq shocked the more fancied South Korea 4-3 in a penalty shootout after a scoreless extra time on Wednesday to put them on the brink of their greatest footballing achievement.

Previously, the national team had only advanced as far as the semifinals in 1976 and lost their past three consecutive Asian Cup quarterfinals.

Now they travel to Jakarta for an all-Arab final with Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

"Everyone is happy and we have reason to be happy because this victory brings us to the final and we deserved that," Iraq's Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, who has been in charge for less than two months, said.

"My boys have worked very hard."

An emotional Vieira said the victory was for "the people of Iraq because they deserve it".

Thousands of Iraqis wearing team jerseys and waving national flags poured onto the streets of Baghdad cheering and firing assault rifles wildly into the air after the match to celebrate a rare moment of shared joy.

But the jubilation didn't last long.

A massive car bomb detonated in the formerly upscale western neighbourhood of Mansour in the middle of a crowd, killing at least nine men. Another 62 people, including women and children, were wounded in the blast.

In a separate attack another car bomb went off in Zayuna, a mixed neighbourhood near downtown Baghdad, killing at least 17 people and wounding 60 others.

Goalkeeper Noor Sabri was Iraq's hero, making a crucial save in the penalty shootout to steer his side into the final, and he dedicated his team's fighting spirit to his beleaguered compatriots in his war-ravaged homeland.

Noor illustrated the grim personal cost his teammates have endured to play at the Asian Cup and how they are doing their bit in lifting spirits for those suffering in the Iraq civil conflict.

"Four days before we came to Bangkok my wife's brother died and my teammate Hawar Mohammed lost his step-mother," he said.

"We know we are struggling inside Iraq and we are struggling on the playing field because it is a very modest thing we can give to our people.

"We have to struggle, we have to show them that we are sharing all what we are achieving here. But this is historic for football in our country."

It is testament to the players that they have got so far in the tournament with so little preparation amid the chaos in their homeland.

Vieira, who before the tournament said every person in the Iraqi team had lost family or friends in the ongoing conflict, had scant time to work with his charges.

But, well versed in Arab football with 20 years combined experience in Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia, he has managed to mould a skillful and unified team.

"We missed more opportunities than Korea, especially in the second half and in extra time," he said.

"The Koreans were down on fitness. We were tired too but we were better on the fitness side and it's a game that will never be forgotten, especially by us."

Iraqi players dream of playing in Europe and the big salaries of the continent's professional clubs, away from the perils of their war-torn country where their talents go unrewarded.

Now they realize a final win could open doors to bright futures.

Reports have already linked Nashat Akram with English Premier League side Sunderland.

(China Daily via AFP July 27, 2007)

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