Triumphant Iraq soccer team set for heroes' welcome

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s mainly expat national soccer team are looking forward to returning home to celebrate winning the Asian Cup, but some are fearful for their safety and for the security of any jubilant crowds.

Iraqi Youth and Sports Minister Jasem Mohammed Jaafar said on Monday it was hoped the team, most of whose players live abroad, would arrive in Baghdad this week after their historic triumph in Jakarta on Sunday.

“They will be met at the airport by representatives of the prime minister, president and speaker of the Council of Representatives,” Jaafar told Reuters.

“We are studying how to offer them the necessary security so they can enjoy the events we have for them,” he said.

Suicide car bombs killed 50 people after Iraq’s semi-final win over South Korea last week sent celebrating fans pouring into the streets.

Players fear they, and the large crowds expected to turn out to meet them, would be easy targets for insurgents.

“I am very happy and my wish is to be able to go to Iraq and live this moment with Iraqis,” Iraqi team captain Younis Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone from Indonesia.

“Our objective was to win the Cup and we have it, but now our minds are set on where and how we can celebrate in these difficult circumstances,” he said.

Mahmoud, who scored the winning goal in the final against Saudi Arabia, was named player of the tournament.

His team won Iraq’s first Asian Cup title against the odds, overcoming logistical and training problems and led by a Brazilian coach who had only been in the job for two months.

Midfielder Hawar Mullah Mohammad, who set up Mahmoud’s goal with an inch-perfect corner kick, said he was also looking forward to a national reception.

“We wish we could go back and get a reception like other winning teams in open-top buses,” Mohammad told Reuters.

“But we don’t only fear for ourselves, we are also afraid for the safety of the large crowds that may be targeted by terrorists,” he said.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh tried to reassure Mahmoud and his players.

“The players shouldn’t worry because there are many safe places in Baghdad,” he said.

Thousands of jubilant fans took to the streets on Sunday in the biggest nationwide celebrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the win offering war-weary Iraqis a rare moment of levity.