By CHRIS LINES
JAKARTA, Indonesia – Iraq won the Asian Cup for the first time Sunday, a beacon of hope for a nation divided by war.
Iraq’s 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia on a 71st-minute header by captain Younis Mahmoud was an inspirational triumph for a team whose players straddle bitter and violent ethnic divides. After the game, Mahmoud called for the United States to withdraw its troops from his nation.
“I want America to go out,” he said. “Today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but out. I wish the American people didn’t invade Iraq and, hopefully, it will be over soon.”
Mahmoud also said he will not return to Iraq to celebrate.
“I don’t want the Iraqi people to be angry with me,” he said. “If I go back with the team, anybody could kill me or try to hurt me.”
Iraq, whose only World Cup appearance was in 1986, dominated the Saudis, three-time Asian Cup champions. Iraq joins the United States, Brazil, Italy and host South Africa at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup along with the champions of Europe, Africa and Oceania.
Elation was juxtaposed against the tragedy in the players’ homeland. Coach Jorvan Vieira and Mahmoud wore black armbands during the postgame news conference to commemorate the dozens of fans killed back home during celebrations following Wednesday’s semifinal victory over South Korea.
“It’s very clear, from our arms, our respect to the people who died when we put Korea out of the competition,” Vieira said. “This victory we offer to the families of those people.”
Vieira, who is Brazilian, resigned after the game.
“I have worked my best to give happiness to the Iraqi people, to bring a warm smile to their lips and my mission is accomplished,” Vieira said. “The satisfaction is doubled when you can get this cup and you bring happiness for a country, not just a team. It’s more important than anything.”
Mahmoud, who plays for Al Gharafa in Qatar, scored his fourth goal of the tournament when he met Hawar Mulla Mohammed’s corner kick at the far post. Goalkeeper Yaser Al Mosailem went for the ball but didn’t get it, presenting an easy chance for an unmarked Mahmoud.
At the final whistle, Mahmoud sprinted across the field with his elated teammates in pursuit before they collapsed into a pile, overwhelmed with their achievement. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office announced that each Iraqi player will receive $10,000.
About 3,000 Iraqi refugees celebrated in Damascus, Syria. In Dearborn, Mich., Iraqi-Americans gathered in the streets, honking horns, sitting on car roofs and waving flags.
Jubilation over the team known as the “Lions of the Two Rivers” gave Iraqis a rare respite from the daily violence. The victorious run sent men of all ages cheering and dancing in Baghdad.
Celebratory gunfire resounded across the city and revelers poured into the streets in defiance of orders from authorities while mosques broadcast calls for the shooting to stop. Security forces enforced a vehicle ban in an effort to prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens celebrating Iraq’s progress to the final.
“The players have made us proud, not the greedy politicians,” said Sabah Shaiyal, a 43-year-old police officer in Baghdad. “Once again, our national team has shown that there is only one, united Iraq.”