Canberra Stadium hosted the final game of Group D between Arab brothers and sisters in Iraq and Palestine, and once again football was the winner on and off the field. It was another mild evening and fortunately for the crowd of just over 10,000 the forecast rain showers and possible thunderstorm held off throughout the game.
Although the vast majority of active fans were for Iraq, there was a large contingent of Palestinian supporters who also brought their flags, drummers, songs and chants. Particularly impressive were the frequent outbreaks of dancing with musical accompaniment from groups of Iraqis. At half time, supporters of their opponents countered with a lap of the internal walkway around the stadium by their own musical band with growing number of recruits joining in. Even if Palestine was not destined to win on the pitch, this provided another opportunity to express and celebrate a unique cultural identity through football.
In the first half, Palestine showed much greater resilience than in the two previous encounters and held an underwhelming Iraqi team to 0-0 by the break. There were few goal scoring chances and it was not until the last ten minutes that Iraq created clear cut opportunities only for them to be wasted.
In second half it quickly became apparent that “Osod Al Rafideen” (the Lions of the Two Rivers) had lifted the tempo. After 48 minutes Younus Mahmood took Iraq to the lead with a pin point header from a corner.
“Al Muntakhab” (the National Team) responded quickly with a counter attack in the 50th minute and squandered a marvellous opportunity to equalise. Ashraf Alfawaghra took advantage of a sloppy back pass to be one-on-one with the goal keeper only for his shot to be saved well by the Iraq goalkeeper’s legs.
The response on the terraces from both sets of supporters reached an even higher intensity, and this continued right through to the final whistle and beyond.
Less than ten minutes later Iraq was awarded a penalty only for stand-in goalkeeper Tawfiq Abuhammad to save well from Mahmood.
Just before full-time following sustained pressure and more chances created and not taken, Ahmed Yaseen produced a fine low drive from the edge of the penalty area to make it 2-0. Finally, in stoppage time substitute Ali Adnan blazed a left foot shot from close range into the side netting.
After the game and outside the stadium the reaction from both sets of fans was one of pride, joy and exuberance.
Hamoudi Aldyni an Iraqi born doctor practising in rural medicine had travelled from Adelaide in South Australia especially for the game, and felt that “overall, there is a big concern and worries (about the team)”.
“We made very naive mistakes including poor passing completion rates in the three group games. With this standard of performance we are not confident of going any further. However, Iran is not unbeatable. The style of both Iraq and Iran is very close, almost identical, so we have a chance”.
“From the start, the quality and the players they have from Europe, Japan is favourites to win the tournament. However, Australia should be in the final” Hamoudi said.
Palestinian-Australian young woman Kunouz and younger sister Yara from Bankstown in Sydney had also been at the game in Newcastle against Japan, and expressed great pride for their team.
“It was a big achievement to get recognition……..and anything is possible in the future” Kunouz said.
Ziad Zakout, a Palestinian-Australian living in Canberra, whose favourite player is first choice goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh, believed the performance was “definitely an improvement on the last two games which I went to”.
“The feeling in that crowd (tonight) with all the other Palestinians is almost indescribable. It feels like this is where you belong right now in the moment; it’s right”.
“Iraq was the stronger team yet we gave our all. Iran will most likely win over Iraq. From now I’ll be supporting Australia and definitely they will win the Asian Cup” Ziad said.
Palestine had lost all three games and yet can feel proud of not just being viewed as ‘easy beats’. Their achievement is being part of Asia’s biggest sporting event and even better performances beckon as and if their football development is allowed to grow with less restrictions and constraints.
Football last night once again showed how it can unify and connect different cultures with a shared passion for the world game. This alone is something wonderful to celebrate and build upon.
Today it is a coach travel back to Sydney ahead of early morning flight tomorrow (Thursday) to Brisbane to get set for the second quarter final clash between China PR and Australia. The Socceroos will be strongly favoured to bounce back from their loss to Korea Republic and yet this will be another tough assignment in very warm, humid and most likely wet conditions with an unkind pitch surface.
Meanwhile, in the first quarter final to be played earlier on at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, a very tight encounter is expected between Korea Republic and Uzbekistan. In 2013, the Taeguk Warriors qualified for the Brasil 2014 World Cup only on slightly better goal difference over the “White Wolves” of Central Asia.
Tickets for fans are already sold out for both quarter finals and this continues the trend for above expectation crowd figures right across the Australia 2015 tournament.
You can follow Pablo Bateson via Twitter @PabloFootball
More pictures from the Canberra clash