JAKARTA, Indonesia — Iraq delivered an inspirational victory Sunday by winning the Asian Cup with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, a beacon of hope for a nation divided by war.
It was an extraordinary triumph for a team drawn together from all parts of the Gulf and with its players straddling bitter and violent ethnic divides.
Iraq scored on a 71st-minute header by captain Younis Mahmoud and dominated the final against heavily favored Saudi Arabia, a three-time Asian Cup champion. This was Iraq’s first Asian Cup title.
Mahmoud met Hawar Mulla Mohammed’s corner kick at the far post. Saudi goalkeeper Al Mosailem came for the ball and flapped at it without making contact, presenting an easy chance for an unmarked Mahmoud with a goal that will long live in Iraqi folklore.
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 player on the Iraqi team would receive $10,000.
The 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, meanwhile, enforced a vehicle ban in an effort to prevent a repeat of car bombings that killed dozens celebrating Iraq’s progress to the final.
After Wednesday’s semifinal win over South Korea, two car bombs tore through crowds of revelers in two Baghdad neighborhoods, killing 50 people. Iraqis welcomed the victory in the final as a chance to show they can come together.
“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.”
Mahmoud came close to opening the scoring in the eighth minute when his overhead kick of a cross from went narrowly wide.
Midway through the half, Karrar Jassim Mohammed came even closer for Iraq when he beat two opponents. Saudi Arabia finally had a decent chance in the 44th minute when star striker Yasser Al Qahtani charged the goal only to shoot over the bar.
Iraq began the second half still showing more initiative than a Saudi squad that appeared confused by its failure to impose its attacking game.
With the crowd of about 60,000 roaring, the Iraqis had another chance when Mahmoud headed narrowly wide. As Saudi Arabia whisked up to the other end, Malek Maaz came close. Then in the 71st minute, Iraq produced the big drama.
Al Mosailem redeemed himself in the 77th minute to preserve a one-goal deficit. Mahmoud went one-on-one with the Saudi goalie, who came off his line to smother the shot.
An inspired Iraq continued to push forward. Only in the last five minutes did it put men behind the ball, clinging on desperately as Saudi Arabia tried to score to no avail.