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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 July 2007, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Iraqis pin hopes on football team
As Iraqis gear up for Sunday's Asia Cup football final, the BBC's Andy Gallacher reports from Baghdad on the hopes raised by the team's recent successes and, also, the fears of renewed attacks against fans.

Fans celebrate an Iraqi football victory
Thousands celebrated when Iraq made it to the final
During Wednesday's semi-final against South Korea, Iraqis were smiling, cheering and feeling a sense of national pride that transcended the sectarian divides that have led to so much bloodshed here.

Sitting in a cafe in the centre of Baghdad, with a family and their friends, was an uplifting experience and a rare one.

Flags were being waved, fingernails were being bitten and for a while at least the daily struggle for survival was temporarily put to one side as 11 men carried the hopes and dreams of a nation on their shoulders.

A headline in a local paper, below a picture of the team's star striker Younis Mahmoud, roughly translated read: "Apologies South Korea, we must win for the happiness of Iraq."

As the winning penalty kick hit the back of the net, the entire city erupted in celebration. The sound and smell of celebratory gunfire filled the air as thousands of people took to the streets - Iraq had made it to the final of the Asian Cup.

Dark past

Everybody here was supporting these 11 men, made up of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, and the squad has managed to achieve what no politician has so far. But it wasn't to last.

Uday (1996 picture)
When Uday was in charge of sport, bad results were severely punished
Just hours later, suicide bombers targeted the fans and at least 50 people were killed and more than 130 injured.

It was a stark reminder that despite a sense of national unity, there are still those determined to wreak havoc and bring yet more misery to this besieged city.

But determined to carry on, Iraqis are eagerly awaiting the final when Iraq take on Saudi Arabia.

If the team do end up raising the cup it would mean so much to Iraq and a squad that in the past has faced prison and torture for failing to perform.

When Saddam Hussein was in power he put his son Uday in charge of sport. Motivational lectures included threats to cut off the players' legs and being made to kick around a football made of concrete.

Missing a practice session often meant time in jail and the players once appeared with shaven heads.

Concerns

Some of those squad members are still in the team, but things are very different now.

For one thing, they are not based in Iraq. Playing football here has become a dangerous occupation - even children keen to kick a ball around have been targeted and killed.

But each of these 11 men is aware of the task ahead and, if they play like they did against South Korea, Sunday could be a special day for Iraq, although there are huge security concerns.

Celebratory gunfire killed three people after the game against Vietnam, and Iraqis are being urged not to fire their weapons into the air - a request that is bound to fall upon deaf ears.

In the hours running up to the final, Iraqis will be stocking up on fuel to run their generators and make sure that television sets work.

When I ask one of my Iraqi colleagues here about the hopes for the team, he utters a phrase I have heard many times in Iraq. "Inshallah,' he says. "God willing."


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
The celebrations after Iraq made it through to the final





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