29/07/2007

Single Goal takes the Cup to Iraq.

It is a match that has been built up beyond the simplicity of eleven men playing eleven for a football cup. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s semi-final, when car bombs killed over 50 people as the Iraqis celebrated their victory, the match is now viewed as a key symbol for the people of Iraq. The fact that the team includes a mixture from the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions means that its success shows what can be achieved if the people of Iraq are united in a common cause. The bombs show that some are opposed to anything so idealistic.

Not surprisingly, with all options available to both teams, both have selected the same starting line up as they used in the semi-finals. The match may be billed as between the strong Iraqi defence, and the free scoring Saudi attack, but early play does not bear this out. In the first ten minutes, Iraq come close on two occasions, with both Qusay and Younes Khalef coming close. Iraq may still be in the 4-2-3-1 formation as they used in the semi-final, but it appears that Karrer is being given more freedom than in the last match to push forward and act as a second striker. In the 28th minute, Karrer showed great skill in beating two defenders as he attacked along the by-line from the left. Yasser Al Mosailem in the Saudi goal needed to be alert to stop the ball on the near post. Meanwhile, the Iraqi defence has been up to everything the Saudis have tried, with Noor Sabri in their goal only being called into action to punch away a corner. A free kick taken by Nashat Akram on the left five minutes before half time was met by Younis Khalef whose header went well wide of the mark in the 41st minute, while the following attack saw Karrer’s shot going just wide. The first half of the game was dominated by the Iraq plays, but they go in all squareafter the last chance of the half falls to the Saudis, Yasser Al Qahtani runs past one defender, but Nashat Akram gets his foot in just in time, and the ball flies well over for a corner – which in turn is easily cleared.

The Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, (ask the taxi driver for Senayan, which was the official name when I first visited, eleven years ago) consists of two tiers curving all the way around, with a uniform height at all points, and a level roof almost uniform all around. There is a track all around, so all the seats are a good distance from the pitch. The upper tier overlaps the lower by about six rows, and with the roof being so high that a wind would blow rain onto many seats in any particular direction, these seats have the advantage in protection. The upper seats are also the cheaper ones here in Jakarta, and there was a problems when I was here before with items being thrown from the top rows down onto the VIPs seats below. The centre of the VIP enclosure now has its own roof, while the introduction of plastic seats in all parts have lowed the capacity to 88,000 for a stadium that once claimed a six figure capacity, and also claims that a 120,000 crowd for a game against Malaysia in 2004. During this competition, two of Indonesia’s matches have attracted over 80,000 spectators. The figure for the final is not even half that, but the lower tier, which makes up the greater part of the stadium is at least half full. Actual supporters from Saudi Arabia naturally outnumber those from Iraq, but there is also a considerable degree of local support, and their sympathies, in the main are with Iraq. Nice to see a good few orange shirts and even a banner for the local Persija club. The local supporters club, calling themselves “Jakmania” is a development since my last visit. Then the club played on a small stadium (called Persija or Menteng) in central Jakarta in front of small crowds, while another club – Pelita Jaya had the more spacious Lebak Bulus Stadium to the south of town. Since then, Persija have grown and taken over the larger stadium, and Jakmania has taken own a life of its own as a supporters club styled after the Italians. Look for their own web pages, www.Jakmania.org to get some idea.

The second half started as the first period finished, with the Iraqi attack in command, and looking for a route through the Saudi defence and an accurate finish to complete a move. On the hour mark, Noor Sabri is called into the game to make the first real save, diving to his left to push away a powerful shot from Tiaseer Al Jassam. Not to be outdone, Yasser Al Mosailem then has to make two saves in quick succession, firstly from Younis Khalef, attacking down the right, and then, as the ball is not cleared, from Nashat Akram coming in on the other side. In contrast, the corners that followed both moves came to nothing. Another terrific chance came from an Iraqi attack on the left, Hawar Taher initially air kicked the ball, and had to chase back and collect it, his cross was then met by Younis Khalef, but again it was wide of the target.

Having failed to do much with most of the corners, it is a corner that allows the deadlock to be broken, and it is broken in favour of Iraq. Hawar Taher takes the kick on the right hand side and delivers it deep. Younis Khalef comes in late to attack the ball, and for once finds the target. The score may have been increased four minutes later, Younis Khalef again gets free, and Yasser Al Mosailem dives at his feet. As the ball runs free, Mahdi Ajeel falls over the keeper’s outstretched arms. With the keeper clearly playing the ball, play goes on and the ball is cleared. Saudi Arabia, who had brought on Ahmed Al Mousa at half time, now bring on Abdoh Autef as their second substitute to try and change the game. Iraqs first change is with 9 minutes left on the clock, Ahmed Menajid Abbas replaces Karrer in the Iraqi attack, and this is followed by the Saudi’s final throw of the dice, bringing on Saad Al Harthi – a third attacked, and in place of a defender. Iraq’s second substitute is Ali Abbas, a change of defenders for the final few minutes in which Saudi Arabia have made clear their intention to attack. This meant Iraq had freedom on the counter attack, and they launched two attacks through Taher on the left. The first was crossed to Younis Khalef whose first touch was wayward, while the second Taher took the shot himself, but well away from the target. Ahmed Abid comes on as the last substitute leaving Iraq with just the job of running the clock down for three minutes of injury time. The cheer that greets Noor Sabri rising to pick out a simple cross shows how popular the result is – and despite a final piece of drama – Noor Sabri coming out of his goal, and missing for once – Maleks downward header bouncing over the post, the whistle blows and the cup heads for Iraq.

A deserved win, one feels. Iraq looked on top of the game from start to finish, and were rarely troubled by the Saudis. It means that Saudi Arabia, like Japan and Iran, are stalled on three wins in this tournament, while it goes to Iraq for the first time. It will be well received by the majority of people on all sides of Iraq’s divides. Lets hope this time, no one spoils the celebrations.