Australia - from favourites to Asia's embarrassment

Coach Graham Arnold has questioned whether his star-studded Australian line-up wants to be at the AFC Asian Cup after a dire 3-1 loss to Iraq in their second Group A match in Bangkok. The pre-tournament favourites were outplayed by a far better side after falling behind to a first-half goal. The Socceroos equalised through skipper Mark Viduka just after half-time, before being picked apart defensively by the Iraqis on the hour for Hawar Mulla Mohammed to score a second. Karrar Jassim Mohammed then finished the Socceroos off with a third goal with five minutes remaining to leave their tournament hanging by a thread. Australia now need to beat Thailand in their final group match on Monday, and hope Iraq either draw with or beat Oman in their match being played simultaneously to move through to the quarter-finals.

"Looking at that game, I would say some players don't want to be here," Arnold told AAP. "Some of them - maybe it is too hard. Maybe the conditions are too hot. The fact that the stadiums aren't full. They can use heat and humidity as an excuse, but attitude comes a long way to it. You look at how they played ... some players, I'm questioning if they want to be out there."

Australians are shocked and angry by their teams limp performance in its inaugural Asian Cup. "The Socceroos had talked before this tournament about playing staccato football, a tempo game of possession and patience to conserve energy in the stifling conditions. That was supposed to go out of the window last night as Australia's battery of English Premier League players vowed to lift their work-rate and replicate the fast-moving, zippy style that is the staple of their soccer lives. Painfully out of rhythm against Oman, there was certainly more brio about their effort here in more favourable conditions. But the Australians, like a bunch of actors who haven't learned their lines properly, are horribly out of sync with themselves and the criticisms now will reach deafening levels," wrote Michael Lynch in The Age.

But Iraq coach Jorvan Vieira was ecstatic. "I told you all we were ready for the match," the Brazilian said. "People sometimes don't believe and we proved today and congratulations to my players. I was never surprised. We worked to win, we never work to lose," he told David Hall of Fox Sports.

Not surprisingly, football fans watching the match live on Iraqi television, were ecstatic with the win. The country is plagued by terrorism and ethnic violence which forces local football to take stringent security measures and restricts the national team's training opportunities. In December last year, former Iraqi coach Yahya Manhel said he hoped people in Iraq would rejoice at their team's progress. "Football is the biggest sport in Iraq. Men, women and children all love it. There are many things which Iraqis disagree about but sport unites them," he said. Iraq had to beat near insurmountable odds to make it to their second Asian Games final. The security situation in Iraq prevented the side not only from having a training camp and they were also unable to practise for more than an hour a day," he said.

This was reinforced in February, when Ihab Kareem, an Iraqi first division club player was killed by a terrorist bomb while shopping in a sports apparel outlet in the Al Shourjah commercial area of the Iraqi capital.

Vieira spoke recently on this problem from the Iraq Football Association's makeshift training base in Jordan: "If they go to Iraq, they are going to be killed ... I don't have one person in this group who hasn't lost someone from their family because of this war. But they never mix politics in the team. They never talk about it. They regret the situation, of course, and they are nostalgic. They miss their country and they're not happy to see their country like it is but nobody talks about the war. I have different groups, different sects, like in Iraq, but here nothing happens and everything is OK. I have Sunni and I have Shia and there is no problem. They are very close ... This is a typical religious war. The extremists have tried to put more fire in the situation."

Striker Younis Mahmoud also said Iraq’s players would "mask their grief" at the Asian Cup and play for their homeland. Mahmoud, who was top scorer in the Qatar League last season, said he had suffered personally in the Iraq sectarian and militia violence, where bomb attacks are an almost daily occurrence. "This is very difficult for me, and my teammate Noor Sabri, the goalkeeper, a very close relative of his was also killed. We put this behind us and we look forward to playing football here. This will not affect us and we try to do our best. In Iraq we say that the grief is in our hearts, but we will never show this to people. I hope everything will be okay in Iraq very soon and we will organise a future Asian Cup.”

These proud sentiments have not prevented pro-insurgent propaganda being introduced into the context of Iraq's sensational defeat of Australia last night. An unnamed reporter of The Associated Press claimed Iraqis were celebrating the win because Australian forces were based in southern Iraq on peace-keeping duties.

"Australia, a close US ally, has 1,000 troops inside Iraq and another 600 providing air and naval support in the region. Australian Prime Minister John Howard sent 2,000 troops to support US and British forces in the Iraq invasion in 2003," the article stated before selecting a lawyer, "Mohammed al-Kharasani, 52" who said the game "was some kind of a challenge because we were playing with a country that has military presence here and at the same time a country known to have a strong team ... Regrettably, the Australian team played looking down to us since they are an occupying country."

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