BAGHDAD (AP) – South Korea came from a goal down to beat Iraq in a penalty shootout and claim its 12th under-19 Asian title on Saturday.
Iraq was looking for its first title since the war-torn country won the 2007 Asian Cup. It led in the United Arab Emirates until injury time when South Korea equalized for 1-1, then after extra time the Koreans won the shootout 4-1.
Despite the loss, Iraqis were just happy to see their team in the final. It was the latest sign that football in the country was improving after years of being weakened through economic sanctions and war. And while this wasn't the biggest competition, it was a rare chance for Iraqis to put aside their sectarian and ethnic division for a moment.
''Football unites us. It takes away our sectarianism a little bit,'' said Ali Khazal, 45, owner of the Aradin cafe in the middle-class neighborhood of Karadeh. His brother died three years ago in a bombing outside a Shiite mosque. ''When this team plays - Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds - where are their hearts? Their hearts are following the team.''
This was the first time since 2000 that Iraq reached the under-19 final, which was turned into an event of sorts in the country's capital. The match flickered from shop televisions and fans could be found waving small flags. Fans - some drinking soft drinks and others taking drags from water pipes - are used to following the national side which has reached the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The under-19 team offered another reason to celebrate.
''We have returned to our great past, to great Iraqi football,'' said Iraq Football Association secretary general, Tarek Ahmed, before the match. ''It's moving forward in good steps, because of the success of our training.''
Still, critics have complained the country doesn't do enough to recruit and train younger talent from the country's 20 football clubs. And security fears force Iraq to play home matches for World Cup qualifiers in Doha, Qatar. For a moment, though, Iraqis were able to enjoy success that came despite all their problems.
''That they reached this level, despite our tough situation, despite our limited abilities, it's a victory,'' said Yousef Khoshabar, who briefly abandoned his shoeshine stand to watch the match.
Winning the Asian Cup for the first time in 2007 remains Iraq's greatest football triumph.
The under-19 team has qualified for the under-20 World Cup in Turkey next year.