JAKARTA (Reuters) - The healing power of sport has always been an objective issue. Its ability to unite people is balanced by its capacity to divide.
For every winner, there has to be a loser. One man’s ecstasy is another man’s agony.
Yet, if ever there was an argument that sport can succeed where politicians, armies and even religions may fail, then the 14th Asian Cup provided a compelling case.
Iraq’s unexpected 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in Sunday’s final at Jakarta was as much a triumph for human spirit as the athleticism and skill of their players.
Few people gave them any hope of making it past the group stages, let alone winning the tournament against teams boasting seasoned professionals who ply their trade in the rich European leagues.
The early signs for Iraq were not good. The squad was a patchwork of of Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish players, fractured by the sectarian violence in their homeland.
The first three coaches who were offered the job of trying to mould them together politely declined. Only Jorvan Vieira, a Brazilian journeyman who had worked with 26 clubs and five national teams, took up the challenge.
Iraq’s first match of the tournament offered no clues about what was about to unfold. They struggled to salvage a 1-1 draw with co-hosts Thailand, but the momentum was only just beginning.
They beat pre-tournament favourites Australia 3-1 in their second game but their performance was overshadowed by claims of disharmony in the Socceroos camp.
The Australians, making their first appearance at the tournament after ditching Oceania in search of stiffer competition, were supposed to be the feelgood story of the tournament but failed to live up to their own expectations.
They scraped through to the quarter-finals by finishing second in their group and were bundled out by defending champions Japan on penalties.
Japan also disappointed.
After winning the two previous titles, they looked certain to make it three in a row but lost a pulsating semi-final to Saudi Arabia 3-2 then the third-place playoff to South Korea, which would have earned them an automatic place in the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar.
South Korea failed to score a single goal in their last three games. They beat Iran and Japan on penalties but lost the shootout that really mattered in the semi-final with Iraq.
China failed to make it past the group stage and the tournament organisers were starting to get anxious after their experiment to play the event in four countries -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam -- threatened to backfire.
Crowd attendances were already low and interest was declining after the co-hosts were eliminated and players starting moaning about the heat, humidity and logistics of flying between countries.
Iraq had made it through to the final for the first time but even that was a bittersweet moment.
For the first time in years, the Iraqi population had something to cheer about but their spontaneous celebrations triggered a deadly reaction and 50 people were killed by suicide bombers.
Sadly, death is a part of life for all the Iraqi players.
Everyone had a relative or a friend who has died in the conflict and for some, the pain was still so fresh that the Asian Cup was their only way of masking their own grief.
Goalkeeper Noor Sari’s brother-in-law was killed just before the tournament began, midfielder Nashat Akram’s relatives were kidnapped then murdered and Hawar Mulla Mohammad’s stepmother died two days before the quarter-final against Vietnam.
Iraq went into the final riding a wave of global sentiment but were still not expected to beat Saudi Arabia, who were appearing in their sixth final in 23 years and bidding to become the first country to win the title for a fourth time.
Sportsmen rarely need motivation to win but Iraq’s players had an extra spur that convinced them that they could not lose.
The Iraqi captain Younis Mahmoud, who was named best player of the tournament after scoring the winning goal in the final, said the reality of what the team was on the brink of achieving was rammed home after they watched a television report of a mother of one of the victims.
“There was this mother who had seen her little boy killed by a bomb after the match and she was saying he had been sacrificed so that we would win the match,” Mahmoud said.
“We knew we had to win the match for her and so many other people.”
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