BASRA: A second-half brace from Mohannad Ali helped Iraq to a shock 4-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in an emotionally charged friendly at Basra International Stadium.
With a host of regular players missing Iraq were expected to struggle against the Green Falcons but, spurred on by a 60,000-strong crowd, Basim Qasim’s side recorded a historic win in their first encounter with Saudi Arabia on home soil in almost 40 years.
The atmosphere was convivial ahead of the game as Saudi players exchanged flowers with their opponents and also kicked balls into the crowd.
That sentiment continued as both teams stopped a few minutes in to allow Iraqi legend and 2007 Asian Cup-winner Mahdi Karim to say his final goodbye to international football.
With the initial pleasantries over, Saudi Arabia – who came into the match on the back of a comfortable 3-0 victory over Moldova in Jeddah - dominated proceedings.
Abdullah Al-Dossary’s left-foot volley skipped wide of the target before Hassan Al-Raheb had a goal disallowed. The Al-Nassr attacker had been fed by Mohammad Al-Shalhoub’s neat through ball but he failed to beat the offside trap, with the assistant correctly flagging.
Al-Shalboub was omnipresent in midfield, seeing plenty of the ball throughout but struggling to convert his possession into concrete chances; an audacious 35-yard lob was the closest he came, but the ball sailed harmlessly over.
Against the run of play, and with their first real break of the game, it was Iraq who opened the scoring. Humam Tariq was played in down the right and his teasing cross was headed home by Saudi Arabia defender Saeed Alyami.
The goal brought the house down, with Iraq’s fervent home support lighting up the Basra International Stadium. An official attendance figure of 59,694 certainly seemed a little on the conservative side, with some estimates suggesting around 73,000 may have actually been watching.
Iraq had the wind in their sails and both Mohannad Ali and Alaa Ali had chances to extend the advantage before half-time, the former dragging wide – albeit from an offside positon -and the latter flashing a shot narrowly wide.
The Lions of Mesopotamia went into the break 1-0 and at half-time the Saudi players conducted a lap of honour, holding Iraqi scarves aloft.
It was another impressive gesture of respect from the visitors, but when the second half resumed, Iraq appeared in no mood for generosity.
Two minutes into the second half, Mustafa Nadhim pumped a long ball forward towards Alaa Ali. The former Al Batin player advanced before crossing to a waiting Emad Mohsin, who turned the ball home.
Iraqi fans were in dreamland but it was about to get better.
Moments after a fine punch from Iraqi keeper Mohammed Hameed denied the onrushing Hassan Al-Raheb, Iraq were on the counter-attack again.
A direct approach was Saudi Arabia’s undoing once more as Mohannad Ali sprung the offside trap and took the ball past Green Falcons goalkeeper Waleed Abdullah, whose indecision proved costly. Ali skipped past Abdullah and kept his cool to make it 3-0.
The intensity of the game understandably began to slacken and an error from Hameed allowed Saudi Arabia to snatch a consolation - Hassan Muath Fallatah’s free-kick slipping through the Iraqi stopper’s grasp.
Feeling like they’d spotted a potential weakness, Saudi Arabia’s Ahmed Al-Fraidi attempted to speculatively beat Hameed soon after, but his free-kick – a little reminiscent of Ronaldinho’s against England in the 2002 World Cup, landed just over the crossbar.
Cries of ‘Hey, hey, here we come for the fourth goal’ echoed around the stadium and sure enough Iraq obliged, Ali poking home a tidy left-foot finish to put the game beyond Saudi Arabia in the 73rd minute.
The final whistle brought an outpouring of emotion as Iraq claimed a famous win. But while the Lions of Mesopotamia took a step towards competitive football returning to Iraq, the result represented a firm step backwards for Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi Arabia.