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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 13:52 GMT
Iraqis pin hopes on football team
By Andrew North
BBC Baghdad correspondent

Mohammed Khadum, Iraq's goalkeeper
Iraq beat South Korea 1-0 to reach the final

Millions of Iraqis are hoping for a rare bit of good news as the national football team take on Qatar in the final of the Asian Games.

When the team beat favourites South Korea 1-0 earlier this week to get through, there was jubilation.

Kick-off in the final was at 1300 GMT and the state television channel Iraqiyya is showing the game live.

This is the first final the national football team have reached in 24 years, uniting Iraqis across the country.

After a tense first half, with each side having several good chances on goal, the score remained 0-0.

If their team wins, expect a frenzy of celebration from Iraqis- and gunfire across towns and cities, the usual way the mark big events.

The US embassy has been warning employees to be inside once the game starts, because of the risk of being hit by falling rounds. Many other people will be taking cover too.

"If we win it will be the beginning of a new Iraq," a 25-year-old doctor, Amer al-Harky told the BBC News website.

He plans to watch the match at his home in the northern city of Irbil.

For once, people forgot the violence and worsening sectarian divisions, pouring onto the streets, waving flags, honking car horns and many firing in the air
"I think Iraq's chance to win it is 50%. They are a good team and have a chance, but Qatar has better opportunities, because it is playing in its own country."

Football is the country's number one sport. And right now this match is one thing perhaps the only thing that is bringing the country together.

People have been rushing to sports shops to buy the green and white national strip to wear ready for the match. And Iraqi flags.

"I've almost sold out," said Bassim, the owner of the AC Milano sports shop.

Only hours before Iraq secured its place in the final on Tuesday, there was a massive suicide bomb in the capital that killed 70 people.

But for once, people forgot the violence and worsening sectarian divisions. People poured onto the streets of towns and cities, waving flags, honking car horns and many firing in the air.

Death threats

The national team is mixed, with both Shias and Sunnis appearing on the pitch for the final. But the fact that this is even an issue people think about is a reflection of the state Iraq is now in.

Deteriorating security affected the team. A football federation official was murdered. The coach received death threats.

Several Iraqi professional players have been kidnapped. One was killed by a stray bullet while training.

Many of the players are already based abroad. And because of the violence, they did most of their training outside Iraq.

Qatar have never got beyond the quarter-finals before, but as hosts of the Asian Games they have the home advantage.

Many conspiracy-minded Iraqis are convinced their fellow Arabs, the Qataris, have already stitched up the result.

The Iraqis are also without their best player, Younis Mahmoud, who was suspended for time-wasting in the semi-final.

But as one football coach in Baghdad said: "In the run-up to this game, we're praying for good news. Iraq needs it."

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